Director reflects on ‘Elemental’ film as it moves to streaming

The day before the documentary film Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire was set to begin streaming on Apple TV, Google Play and Amazon, the director Trip Jennings received a text: a jury found the power company PacifiCorp liable for the Oregon Labor Day fires that serve as examples in the film of why we need to rethink our relationships and responses to wildland fire.

We were talking with Jennings about the making of the film when the text arrived. He shared the news, and remembered, as a filmmaker and resident of Portland, Oregon, those days of wind, smoke and firestorms, of so many lost homes, and of when the film’s team first saw the footage of sparking power lines that ignited the destructive fires.

The news settled and we turned back to the other topics that he’s been focusing on: the vital dialogues of science, the challenging transitions of policy and funding, and the role of insurance as a potential pivot point to help us face wildfire’s risks to homes.

At the moment we were talking about the film itself, and the continuing conversations that the film prompts.

“Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire” is streaming on Apple TV, Google Play, and Amazon beginning June 13. Select your platform at

From initial screenings of the film. Jennings learned that the film sells out in communities where there are effective partnerships working to face wildfire issues. In these communities, Jennings said, the audience may have “a little bit of experience with fire, and they’re curious what to do. They want ideas on how to move forward, they’re feeling vulnerable and concerned. And fire folks are excited about the film too and want to share it. Yet it’s hard for firefighters to say, there’s a limit to what we can do.”

Which is one component of the theme in Elemental. That what we’ve been doing isn’t solving the problems. “We point out the limits to suppression,” though Jennings added that “There’s not a world where we’re not going to fund fire suppression.” And the role that fire professionals play in an ongoing paradigm shift is key. In making the film and during screenings, Jennings observed the “incredible and rare social capital of firefighters” and how their observations of the fire challenge is helping communities change. He was also pleased that the film caught enough of the nuances of fire management and fire science so that it resonated with firefighters (as well as fire survivors and politicians).

The role and voices of firefighters, cultural burners (firelighters), fire scientists, community members and policy makers will all be required in reimagining fire (and all are represented in the film). “We need to change the way we’re thinking about the cultural narrative. When we say the problem is in the forest, it’s not a sufficient answer. The forest is a value at risk, not a solution [to be implemented by logging]. If we can separate fire safety conversations from forest product industry conversations. … if we can separate the conversations more, to let fire safety be its own topic and goal, then the film will be a huge win. And then we can have a more nuanced conversation that takes in the science.”

While suppression will always be a component, Jennings observed that what we fund when it comes to fire and fuels management needs to be focused on the values at risk, often the homes, which may not benefit from a distant forest treatment (and he notes that brush and grass fires, and home-to-home burning, can be as destructive as “forest” fires). Or, for that matter, a logging project packaged as fire safety.

Jennings pointed out that federal fuels management funding is often limited to federal lands, when the dollars would be more effective if they went directly to fire-hardening houses. “In California, the best numbers we can find show that only two of every hundred dollars is spent on the the home. The rest is spent on vegetation management. That’s part of what we help communicate in the film” … including the benefit of focusing on the home ignition zone, building on the work of Jack Cohen, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Insurance Institute. of Business and Home Safety (IBHS). And to remember “that in one year we lost more homes in Paradise to fire than were built in California.”

Rebuilding homes is very expensive and fraught with legal and practical issues. “We’ve found ourselves in the insurance space,” Jennings said when the film first began to screen, in part because of ongoing work that Jennings and film producer/editor Sara Quinn are doing for the PBS Terra show “Weathered.”

Director Trip Jennings and producer/editor Sara Quinn filming at the El Dorado Fire for 'Elemental.' Photo: Ryan Walsh.
Director Trip Jennings and producer/editor Sara Quinn filming at the El Dorado Fire for ‘Elemental.’ Photo: Ryan Walsh.

“It’s the story of what’s going on for so many people rebuilding after fires. A lot of people who got dropped from insurance after a fire, for instance, if their house didn’t burn all the way down. A lot of recovery efforts seem to help those who have time and financial resources.”

And the rates rise. “We talked to someone who paid $1000 total, now their insurance totals $4500. I might spend that money to improve my home, not on insurance.” When it comes to fuels treatment, he said “I think we need to see that where the money goes. Even if it goes to private homes, that is a huge private benefit but everyone is safer if we spend money preparing homes for wildfires. If we cant get out the loop that we can only spend [fuel treatment and preparedness funds] on public lands.”

With some insurers leaving home insurance markets, Jennings wondered if the challenge of identifying the specific cost of wildfire risk, and charging for that through the home insurance process, may be a watershed moment. Again he echoed the ability of the film to reach targeted audiences. With showings to insurance professionals and risk managers he anticipates they may see the value to more clearly identify homes and home clusters that are ready to coexist with fire, and to offer price adjustments for those prepared homes. “We began with FireWise and now the key may be more granular initiatives. Homes are beginning to be counted with the “Wildfire Prepared Home” program being rolled out by IBHS [in a California pilot program], but whether the neighbors are prepared isn’t counted yet. There’s no idea how to model and price the individual risk within a neighborhood.” Though the IBHS program is a key step that may allow homeowners and insurers to rate a home’s wildfire preparedness, which may also mesh with a wildfire risk-rating process by the First Street Foundation along with NFPA’s “Outthink Wildfire” strategy.

Of course, this week’s news and next week’s developments aren’t in the film, but Jennings believes the film is evergreen, in part because of the conversations it prompts (such as those we’ve had with Jennings over the past two months).

There is this and more in the film, of course, including an examination of the role of cultural burning in re-working our relationship with fire. And if our relationship with fire is complex, it is also, as the title reminds us, elemental. As elemental as the reminder that Jennings shared: the key to coexisting with fire begins within the five-foot zone adjacent to the house. “Since the 2008 WUI code, the science around the first five feet has developed a lot. Maybe it’s more important than any single thing.”

To learn why, and more, watch the film, now streaming.

Researchers evaluate how fences can spread fires and ignite structures

Tests fire hazard fences
Examples of very high hazard fences and mulch: A) parallel privacy fences, B) double
lattice fences, C) wood-plastic composite #1 fence, D) good neighbor fence, E) rubber mulch. (From the NIST research)

Three weeks ago a television station in Dallas, FOX 4, streamed live video as a grass fire spread across a field and reached densely-packed houses, eventually destroying 9 and damaging another 17. There were several reasons why the structures were so vulnerable, including medium-heavy vegetation in the field adjacent to the property lines, very little impact from efforts of the fire department to stop the spread, no air support, and wood fences that connected all of the properties on the rear and sides of the homes.

fences burn fire Texas homes destroyed
Parallel fences burn as grass fire spreads into neighborhood in Balch Springs, Texas, July 25, 2022. Image from video by FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth.

On August 10 the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published results of 187 experiments that examined how fire spread toward a structure is affected by combustible fences and mulch under conditions that may be encountered in a wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire. They looked at mulch only, fence only, fence plus mulch, parallel fences, and long range firebrands. The materials studied were western red cedar, California redwood, pine, vinyl, and wood-plastic composites. Fence styles included privacy, lattice, and good neighbor (board on board).

A small structure was located between zero and up to six feet downwind of the fence or mulch bed as a target for flames and firebrands. A target mulch bed at the base of the structure tested the ability of firebrands produced by the burning fence and mulch bed to ignite spot fires that threatened the structure.

While not many homeowners place store-bought mulch below their fences, it can be common for debris to build up along the base on one or both sides. The amount and flammability can be extremely variable, but the researchers’ use of mulch gave them control over the flammable material which could be consistently duplicated in their experiments.

The study found that firebrands capable of igniting spot fires downwind were generated by nearly all combinations of fence and mulch tested in this study. All wood fences with mulch at the base caused spot fires in the target mulch bed. Spot fires were often ignited within a few minutes of mulch and fence ignition. Shredded hardwood mulch and pine bark mulch burned and emitted firebrands for longer than an hour. Ignition of spot fires was also demonstrated from firebrands transported by the wind over distances as far as 156 feet from the burning item under high wind conditions and over a paved surface.

The research generated a number of recommendations:

  • Avoid parallel fences, to reduce exposure to large flames. Parallel fences can result in highly hazardous fuel accumulation corridors that are difficult to access and maintain. Spacing of 3 feet between fences is not sufficient.
  • Avoid proximity to other combustible fuels, to reduce fire intensity and limit fire spread. This includes fuels above the fence and fuels across parcel boundaries. Avoid mulch at base of fence.
  • Avoid proximity of combustible fences to residence, including neighboring residence, to prevent direct ignition.
  • Fire spread is more likely with wood and wood-plastic composite fences than with fences made of vinyl or noncombustible materials such as stone, brick, or steel.
  • Keep fence and yard clear of debris, to reduce the amount of fuel and potential pathways for fire.
  • Harden structures against firebrands to prevent structure ignition from embers produced by fences or other combustible sources.

The video from the July 25 fire in Texas does not clearly show the fences between the residences, but it is likely that they directly connected to the structures. An example is seen in the photo below of two homes in Superior, Colorado, one of the communities devastated by the Marshall Fire that destroyed 991 structures south of Boulder December 30, 2021.

Fence connecting houses fire spread hazard
File photo of fence connecting houses in Superior, Colorado. July, 2012 Google image.

The images below are from the FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth video shot July 25, 2022.

fences burn fire Texas homes destroyed
Fences burn as grass fire spreads into neighborhood in Balch Springs, Texas, July 25, 2022. Image from video by FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth.
fences burn fire Texas homes destroyed
Fences burn as grass fire spreads into neighborhood in Balch Springs, Texas, July 25, 2022. Image from video by FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth.
fences burn fire Texas homes destroyed
Fences burn as grass fire spreads into neighborhood in Balch Springs, Texas, July 25, 2022. Image from video by FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth.

Most structures that burn in a wildfire are not ignited by direct flame impingement, but by burning embers that are lofted and carried downwind ahead of the fire.  At Wildfire Today we first covered the role of embers in igniting structures in 2010, a concept brought into the public consciousness by Jack Cohen, a researcher at the Missoula Fire Science Lab. To reduce the chances of a home burning in a wildfire, the most bang for the buck is to concentrate on the Home Ignition Zone. The flammable material near the structure needs to be modified, reduced, or eliminated to the point where multiple burning embers landing in the zone will not propagate the fire and spread to the structure.

More information: Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gerald.

Grass fire burns into Dallas suburb, destroys 9 homes

Another 17 were damaged

11:53 p.m. CDT July 25, 2022

Balch Springs Fire
Grass fire spreads into neighborhood in Balch Springs, Texas, July 25, 2022. Image from video by FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth.

A grass fire burned into a suburb of Dallas, Texas Monday afternoon destroying 9 homes and damaging another 17, according to city officials. It occurred in Balch Springs when a mower struck an object in a field, creating a spark which ignited dry grass near Interstate 20 and South Beltline Road.

A steady breeze pushed the fire into a row of houses adjacent to the field. One by one the fire ignited house after house, aided by a fence that ran behind and between all of the homes which contributed to the fuel load and the continuous spread.

Balch Springs Fire
Grass fire spreads into neighborhood in Balch Springs, Texas, July 25, 2022. Image from video by FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth.

In the 30-minute video below very few firefighters are seen for the first 20 minutes. Balch Springs, with an estimated population of about 25,000 in 2019 has about eight firefighters working on any given day, Fox 4 news reported. The fire was well established when the video began, with at least one home already burning.

Looking at the video from a firefighter’s perspective, it is interesting to see how the fire progresses as the fence and outbuildings burn intensely, structures ignite, police gather in the street, a dog in a backyard looks worried (at 17:48), and little is seen in the video to initially stop the spread through the field or the neighborhood. However we don’t see the street side of the homes except at the very beginning; there may have been more firefighter activity on that side. There was a tower/ladder truck in the street that looked like it kept about four houses from being destroyed.

Our hearts go out to the residents who lost their homes.

Photos show devastation after the 6,000-acre Marshall Fire in Colorado

The surviving homes in subdivisions that were destroyed had a common feature

Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado, by WxChasing/Brandon Clement
Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado. Photo by WxChasing/Brandon Clement, Dec. 31, 2021.

Early Friday morning, about 20 hours after the Marshall Fire ignited, a drone operated by Twitter user WxChasing/Brandon Clement flew over subdivisions that were devastated by the December 30 fire. It found block after block of ash piles, some still smoldering. In many scenes there was scarcely a structure still standing. (Scroll down to see the video.)

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Marshall Fire, including the most recent, click here:

All of the reasons why some houses did not burn even though dozens around them were consumed could not be determined from the video, but there was one common feature — the survivors were more distant from the neighboring homes. Many houses in the subdivisions were only 10 to 20 feet apart based on archived imagery in Google Earth.

The fire was driven by very strong winds gusting at 60 to 100 mph, extremely dry conditions after months of drought, and relative humidity in the mid-20s. These are the very worst fire conditions. The weather paired with the nearly back to back structures led to the fire spreading through a continuous human-made fuel bed. When one house burned the convective and radiant heat easily ignited its neighbor, which ignited its neighbor, etc.

The fire in the vegetation and structures lofted burning materials far downwind, creating distant spot fires in the home ignition zone on bone dry lawns, mulch beds around ornamental plants, and on structures. It is unknown at this point how many had been designed and built to be fire resistant, such as the characteristics of the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home. Local building codes could regulate these features. But if the lot size is so small that residences are only 10 to 20 feet apart, if one becomes fully involved, the neighbors also burn, especially during windy conditions.

So far we have listed some factors that affect the vulnerably of structures during a wildland-urban interface fire: home spacing and lot size, the envelope of the structure itself, fire codes, and the home ignition zone. Others are:

  • Evacuation capability and planning;
  • Safety zones where residents can shelter in place;
  • Road and driveway width, wide enough for large fire trucks;
  • Turnarounds at the end of roads;
  • Signage, and;
  • Emergency water supply.

The video below of the Marshall Fire devastation was shot by WxChasing/Brandon Clement at first light on December 31, 2021, the day after the fire started. Not long after, snow began falling. The National Weather Service in nearby Boulder recorded an accumulation of eight inches.

Wildfire risk reports available for communities in the U.S.

Reports can be customized for every city, county, and state

Wildfire risk, Yreka, CA
Homes at risk from wildfire in Yreka, CA. An excerpt from a report by Headquarters Economics.

Headwaters Economics has developed new Wildfire Risk report system for communities. Reports can be customized for every U.S. city, county, and state which provide information about wildfire risk and potentially vulnerable populations. It uses public data from the USDA Forest Service, US Census Bureau, and other sources and is one of several reports available in their Economic Profile System.

Headwaters Economics explains that they created this new report because wildfire risk is more than a physical hazard. Economic, demographic, and social vulnerabilities put some people disproportionately at risk. Information in their reports can help elected officials, land use planners, fire personnel, and community health organizations to:

  • prioritize and direct resources to the people and places most at-risk;
  • customize and target outreach and education efforts; and
  • tailor wildfire response and operational plans.

The graphic at the top of this article is a portion of the 15-page report for Yreka, California, which can be downloaded here.

Arizona Central also has a system for generating data about wildfire risk for individual communities in the Western United States.

Studying a wildland urban interface maintained by Native Americans from 1100 to 1650

Ancestors of the Jemez Pueblo used fire 27 different ways

Conceptual map of landscape zones Hemish people
Figure 2 from the publication. Conceptual map of landscape zones and 27 fire and wood uses for Hemish people.

A paper being published this week looks at an area in Northern New Mexico that was populated by Native Americans living within a wildland urban interface (WUI) that was sustainable from approximately 1100 to 1650.

Below are excepts from the publication.

Researchers combined ethnography, archaeology, paleoecology, and ecological modeling to infer intensive wood and fire use by Native American ancestors of Jemez Pueblo and the consequences on fire size and intensity. Initial settlement of northern New Mexico by Jemez farmers increased fire activity within an already dynamic landscape that experienced frequent fires. Wood harvesting for domestic fuel and architectural uses and abundant, small, patchy fires created a landscape that burned often but only rarely burned extensively.

Depopulation of the forested landscape due to Spanish colonial impacts resulted in a rebound of fuels accompanied by the return of widely spreading, frequent surface fires. The sequence of more than 500 years of perennial small fires and wood collecting followed by frequent “free-range” wildland surface fires made the landscape resistant to extreme fire behavior, even when climate was conducive and surface fires were large. The ancient Jemez WUI offers an alternative model for fire management in modern WUI in the western United States, and possibly other settings where local management of woody fuels through use (domestic wood collecting) coupled with small prescribed fires may make these communities both self-reliant and more resilient to wildfire hazards.

Policy implications

The Jemez ancient wildland urban interface (WUI) obviously contrasts with modern WUI in the American West in ways that make the ancient WUI an imperfect analog for modern conditions. The economic, technological, and political differences are irreconcilable but they do not obviate the relevance of the ancient WUI for modern problems. The cultural contrasts between ancient and modern WUI highlight opportunities to cultivate more resilient communities by supporting particular cultural values.

Two of the important characteristics of the Jemez ancient WUI are: 1) That it was a working landscape, in which properties of the fire regime were shaped by wood, land, and fire use that supported the livelihoods of the residents; and 2) that there was much greater acceptance of the positive benefits of fire and smoke.

We emphasize that these are malleable cultural features, because reshaping western United States culture by learning from indigenous cultural values may be critical for building adaptive and transformative resilience in modern communities. Learning to value the positive benefits of fire and smoke and to tolerate their presence will undoubtedly be critical to WUI fire adaptations.

Furthermore, the ancient WUI highlights two key processes that may make modern WUI more resistant to extreme fires: 1) Intensive wood collecting and thinning, particularly in close proximity to settlements; and 2) using many small, patchy fires annually (approximately 100 ha) rather than using larger burn patches (thousands of hectares) to restore fire and reduce fuel hazards, particularly closer to settlements.

Many WUI communities—especially rural and Indigenous communities—rely on domestic biomass burning for heat during the winter. Public/private–tribal partnerships to thin small diameter trees and collect downed and dead fuel for domestic use could have dual benefits for the community by meeting energy needs and reducing fuel loads. Tribal communities that have deep histories in a particular forested landscape may be ideal partners for supervising such a program. Lessons from the Jemez ancient WUI also suggest that federal and state programs to support prescribed burning by Native American tribes, WUI municipalities, and private land owners would provide equal benefit to modern communities.

It is imperative that we understand the properties and dynamics of past human–natural systems that offer lessons for contemporary communities . The Jemez ancient WUI is one of many such settings where centuries of sustainable human–fire interaction offer tangible lessons for adapting to wildfire for contemporary communities.

Authors of the paper: Christopher I. Roos, Thomas W. Swetnam, T. J. Ferguson, Matthew J. Liebmann, Rachel A. Loehman, John R. Welch, Ellis Q. Margolis, Christopher H. Guiterman, William C. Hockaday, Michael J. Aiuvalasit, Jenna Battillo, Joshua Farella, and Christopher A. Kiahtipes.