A documentary is being produced for a multi-fatality wildfire that occurred in the 1970s.
On December 20, 1977, three people were entrapped and killed on the Honda Canyon fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, including the Base Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy Bell, and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper. Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley suffered severe burns and later died from the complications. A book about the fire, “Beyond Tranquillon Ridge”, was written by Joseph N. Valencia.
Mr. Valencia, one of the first firefighters on the fire, is serving as a technical consultant on the documentary, titled “Firestorm”, which is adapted from the book.
Here is how Mr. Valencia described the fire to us in an email:
A combination of hurricane-force winds and the snapping of an electrical pole starts the Honda Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, early in the morning of December 20, 1977. Over a thousand people consisting of professional firemen and military personnel fight the fire. Outlier winds would increase to over a hundred miles per hour, making the firefight almost impossible. Four fatalities and sixty-five injuries resulted. Ten-thousand acres burn, resulting in significant damage to the military installation infrastructure. Ironically and fortuitously, the fire will be out, a little more than 30 hours later, due to a rain storm-front coming in.
Others folks working on the film include producer Dennis R. Ford, and Christopher Hite, Director of Photography and Cinematographer.
Many interviews have been filmed with people that were on the incident. One of the many reasons for making the documentary is to collect information about the catastrophe that occurred 42 years ago while the witnesses and participants are still available. You can view some of the interviews at the film’s Facebook page.
Over the course of a fire season Alex Jablonski embedded with a Grayback Forestry Type 2 Initial Attack hand crew of firefighters out of Merlin, Oregon, getting to know them and gaining their trust. He accompanied them on wildfires carrying two video cameras, lenses, extra batteries, and a fire shelter in his fireline pack along with two gallons of water and a Yeti Rambler bottle filled with half a gallon of coffee. Most of the time while they were on a fire he worked beside them using a hand tool, but about 10 to 15 percent of the time he traded the tool for one of the video cameras, shooting footage while they were working and interviewing them on breaks.
“Sometimes we missed some good shots or some good moments but it was important to us to make sure that we were contributing and were very much a part of the crew”, Mr. Jablonski said. “As you can see in the film a lot of the story takes place off the line and at home, or in training, because we wanted to tell the personal stories of these guys on the crew.”
Mr. Jablonski and two other videographers, Kahlil Hudson and Grayson Schaffer, went through the basic firefighter training, passed the Work Capacity Test (Pack Test), and received Red Cards, qualifying them to work on the fireline with the crew. The three of them rotated in and out; only one person from the film company was with the crew at any one time.
“We also knew the pack test would be the easiest part of the summer”, Mr. Jablonski said, “and kept in good shape before starting the film — training hikes, lifting, etc.”
The filmmakers used their summer with the crew and the hours of video they shot to make a film — “Wildland”. The television version will be shown on the PBS television series Independent Lens October 29. Check your local listings — not all stations will carry it at that time; I saw it scheduled for 3 a.m. October 30 in one city. The full-length feature film version will appear in a limited number of theaters beginning January 16, 2019. That website has instructions on how you can bring it to your city. Mr. Jablonski said all screenings will help raise money for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, helping families of firefighters.
Filmed over one fire season, “Wildland” is a sweeping yet deeply personal account of a single wildland firefighting crew as they struggle with fear, loyalty, dreams, and demons. What emerges is a rich story of working-class men — their exterior world, their interior lives and the fire that lies between. (From the film’s website)
The filmmakers obtained permission from the Oregon Department of Forestry to embed with the Grayback Forestry crew and shot only on ODF fires. They did not shoot on any U.S. Forest Service fires.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Mr. Jablonski from a PBS article:
How did you integrate and get initiated with these other firefighters? Did you have a special bond with any of them?
“It began by just spending a lot of time at the base. We’d be there early in the morning in the winter when the guys were just going out to do what’s called ‘project work’ which is essentially thinning forests. It’s hard work on steep slopes and not exciting. We’d tag along and just hang out, then maybe shoot a bit or ask questions during a break.”
“It’s this slow process of building rapport, showing that you’re there for the right reasons and that you’re committed to spending time there.”
“Then as we got to know people we’d find guys who we thought could be pretty interesting. Tim Brewer, the crew boss in the film, was someone who stuck out right away. He’s sharp-tongued and funny and has a ton of experience. He’s also not particularly friendly at first.”
“When we’d zeroed in on his crew to follow them, I went up to him and said, ‘Hey Tim, I’m Alex — we’re doing this film and we’d be interested in talking to you about maybe following your crew,’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘You know I’m a dick, right?’ and then walked away. That was it.”
“And then he avoided me for a week. But once we were able to keep talking to him and explain what we were after he became a little more open. And after spending a lot of time out there with him we became friends and I’ve opened up to him about things I’ve gone through in the same way that he opens up [about] in the film.”
Below is the official trailer for “Wildfire”:
The film is directed and produced by Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson.
We talked with Dierks Bentley about the song he performed and co-wrote, Hold the Light, that is featured in the movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, “Only the Brave”. He is from Arizona and said the tragedy had a major impact on him.
Bill Gabbert sat down with Brendon McDonough and Miles Teller the day of the red carpet screening in Phoenix of “Only the Brave”, which is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In 2013, 19 members of the crew perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.
Mr. McDonough was the only member of the 20-person crew to survive. Miles Teller played him in the movie.
Bill Gabbert sat down with James Badge Dale the day of the red carpet screening in Phoenix of “Only the Brave”, which is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In 2013, 19 members of the crew perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.
Mr. Dale played Jesse James Steed, the second in command on the crew.
Bill Gabbert of Wildfire Today sat down with Josh Brolin in Phoenix about a week before the opening of the movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, “Only the Brave”. He explained that he and the other actors felt that the subject of the film was very meaningful.