Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future – an interview with documentary filmmaker Kevin White

by Brian Bahouth

An image from the Rim Fire - image - Mike McMillan US Forest Service

Reno – Incline Village, Nevada is one of the more scenic municipalities in the nation.  A big part of the splendor is not only Lake Tahoe but the proximity of vast tracts of coniferous forest. Throughout the basin, many million-dollar homes are nestled among towering, 100-year-old Jeffrey pines, but the nearness of big trees and vast forests comes with a potentially high price.

No one who lived in the Lake Tahoe basin in 2007 can forget the Angora Fire that burned some 3,100 acres, 242 homes, and 65 commercial buildings near the south end of Lake Tahoe. From the start of the fast-moving fire on June 24 to full containment on July 2, those who lived in the basin while the fire was active and throughout that particularly dry and windy summer were on edge.

In the context of last year’s Camp Fire, the Angora fire seems tiny. According to Cal Fire data, the Camp Fire broke out on November 8 and in 17 days burned 153,000 acres, destroyed 18,800 structures, to include 14,000 residences and 530 commercial buildings. The entire town of Paradise was destroyed. Eighty-eight people lost their lives. The event bankrupted the state’s largest utility which caused the nearly $17 billion fire.

In an effort to engage communities in conversations about the future of wildfire, on Thursday May 30 at 5:30 p.m. in the UC Davis Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences in Incline Village, North Tahoe Fire, Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities, and UC Davis TERC will show the award-winning documentary Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests, and the Future.

A panel discussion will follow the screening featuring representatives from the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, U.S. Forest Service, Washoe County Emergency Management, Washoe County Sherriff’s Office, Washoe County Search & Rescue, and NV Energy.

Brian Bahouth spoke with the film’s writer/director Kevin White about the making of Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future.

Watch a trailer for Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future.

Wilder than Wild Trailer from Filmmakers Collaborative SF on Vimeo.

Making Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests, and the Future took some four years, and during that time, producer/director Kevin White said the changing nature of wildfire and the causes behind the change became horrifyingly evident. Wilder than Wild reveals how decades of fire suppression and climate change have given birth to and spurred massive, high-intensity wildfires.

“When we started the film back in 2013, 2014 we had no idea that we would be where we are here in May of 2019. With all of these catastrophic, catastrophic wildfires behind this and during the process, I gained a lot, I mean, not filming wildfire, seeing it up close and personal and having that experience of seeing a very large fire, closely seen how they fight it and all of this stuff, it really increases my respect for the power of nature. I mean, it’s like, so incredibly powerful. You’ll never forget it, to see a forest in front of you get incinerated. And it really is something you just will never forget,” White said.

The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: the 4th annual Climate Assessment, adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

The upshot for White is that there is a pressing need for potentially affected communities to better understand and prepare for wildfire.

“On the other side, the respect I have for the firefighters in the work they have to do and, you know, we’ve kind of created this tough situation where we’ve had 100 years of fire suppression. We have a lot of people living in wildland urban areas that probably they’re not so aware of exactly how much wildfire potential is in those areas. And you know, we have a warmer changing climate, drier and warmer, and it’s going to, it’s going to play a role in wildfires in the future, and so I kind of went into it knowing that, but then when you see the extent of damage, what I learned is really, really, really quickly that if we don’t rethink our relationship to wildfire, particularly here in California, which many call the Pyro state, we’re going to have more of this moving forward, and it’s getting to be more extreme.”

Was 2018 a wake up call for elected officials and agencies that combat fires? In April, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a report titled Wildfires and Climate Change: California’s Energy Future. In the report, “more than 25 million acres of California wildlands are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat. Approximately 25 percent of the state’s population – 11 million people – lives in that high-risk area.”

The governor’s publication also points out that wildfires are more frequent and more devastating. “Fifteen of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history have occurred since 2000; ten of the most destructive fires have occurred since 2015.”

These fires have spelled lives lost and economic effects in the form of rising gas and electricity rates and significant upward price pressure on the home insurance market.

“I keep thinking that 2018 was a wake up call, but I hope so. I hope so,” White said. “I know it’s a wake up call for communities in fire prone areas. Is it a wake up call for policymakers? I hope so. I know that there’s lots of people talking about it. And I know they’ve allocated more funds for it. And I know that Newsom has created his new wildfire plan agenda. I haven’t read it yet. I have to confess. I just haven’t read it yet. But the point is this, that it’s really clear to me that this is not a topic that is just going to go away. We just can’t keep our head in the sand anymore.”

Wilder than Wild faithfully captures and conveys the horror of wildfires, but director White seems intent to not only shock and motivate audiences but to explore solutions to the mounting wildfire threat as well.

“I would say, arguably one of the most important tools we have is public education. And that public education, I’m not sure that it’s really gotten all of the traction it could. I think that’s a component that’s missing a little bit. And I don’t think CAL FIRE would disagree with that by the way, and I’m not sure the Forest Service would either,” White said.

The layers of agencies that fight fires communicate and help each other, but White said there is still a disconnect with and within fire prone communities, though the recent massive fires in California have brought people together and inspired a stronger sense of common purpose.

“You kind of sit there and you just look at that (fire devastation). And you kind of think it’s amazing more people weren’t killed. And what happened was, I think a lot of community folks said, hey, we’re going to, you know, boy, you know, that neighbor that I don’t talk to that often but I see them in a stroller a lot trying to get around, or they’re elderly, or some people knocked on the door, it got those folks out,” White said.

Knowing neighbors and sharing a plan is needed progress.

“The other side of this, the other kind of secret sauce here is for communities to build this bottom up, for communities to have their own emergency plans, for the community for neighbors to know each other. And for people to understand how wildfire will come in, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when in fire prone areas, and for them to recognize how critical it is that they have to all face this together.

“So one of the biggest tools is probably just that simple thing about knowing your neighbors and working with them and making yourself, becoming educated about the issues and looking at the things we can do, the solutions we can deal with.”

Prescribed Fire

“I would love to see California do more prescribed fire,” White said. “There’s a lot of obstacles to prescribe fire in California, not the least of which is smoke, you know, you don’t get it just right with the pollution, the smoke just sits over the valley. We have high rates of asthma with our pollution levels, and there’s all kinds of problems with doing prescribed burns.

“We really need to figure out some strategy to be more aggressive, about doing prescribed burns on the landscape scale,” said White.

In the film, White features the ancient tradition of the Yurok people of what is now northern California of doing focused, prescribed burns. Elizabeth Azzuz and Margo Robbins are Cultural Fire Managers for the Yurok tribe.

“Elizabeth Azzuz and Margo, they call themselves fire lighters, which I think is great. And, you know, this whole idea that, managing our landscapes with fire is a tradition that we need to embrace. And that there’s a lot to learn from the tribes about how they had relatively low scale, high impact successful prescribed burns throughout millennia.”

The practical importance of wildfire education for those who live in fire prone areas is obvious, but White said he wants urban citizens to better understand the situation that affects everyone.

“We want urban people to watch this film as well. Because, it’s very easy, particularly for urban dwellers, to have that kind of, ‘well, that’s somebody else’s problem.’ You know, San Francisco, that smoke after the Camp Fire, they’re all complaining about bad views while Paradise has burned to the ground. Right. And, you know, I think, I think that urban audiences need to recognize it, just because the flames aren’t on their, you know, in their house, they have a huge impact. Wildfires have a huge impact on the quality of health, air quality, their ecological services, you know, water, all those things. And, you know, it just as important for urban dwellers, to get on the, you know, to really get on this bandwagon about understanding what we can do to remake our relationship to wildfire. And, you know, and of course, wildfires happened here, too, you know, that they can happen, you know, in every city in California.”

For more from Kevin White listen to the audio interview embedded above.