Movie review: 'Wildland' documents contract crew from initial training to battling a major fire
“That they prevail as a firefighting unit is never really in doubt, but the film is more about how each of them prevails as a person”
Every summer, thousands of people are hired as seasonal wildland firefighters across the Western United States. Crews are formed at the federal, state and local levels, and private companies also train firefighters to work on a contract basis with other agencies.
A new film, “Wildland,” documents the experiences of one contract crew out of Grants Pass, Oregon, from their hiring through training and work on mundane incidents – until their ultimate deployment on one of the larger fires burning in California that summer.
The prospective firefighters come from a diversity of backgrounds. “I was an angry kid,” says one at the opening of the film. Others talk about family problems, arrest records and histories of substance abuse. One man in his 40s was a former tattoo artist who had lost nearly everything. Two are young men simply seeking adventure. One is hitchhiking across country with no particular destination. All are on a journey of self-discovery with something to prove.
The staff at Grayback Forestry – the company that contracted the firefighters – is matter of fact about the pasts of some of the recruits, which might include criminal convictions and jail time. “We can’t bring too many people in like that,” says one instructor, citing the need to maintain high standards for the crew. “But we also have compassion and want to give people a shot.” Another crew boss jokes before a deployment, “Everybody good for 14 days – no court date next week?”
The film follows the new crew closely through training and initial assignments for routine mop-up duties on fires already officially extinguished. The actual experience of a wildland firefighter is well documented – the physical challenge, the camaraderie, the commitment, the boredom. As the main instructor says, “Fighting fire is just long hours of hard, boring work punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
By the time the crew is deployed to a large and dangerous fire near Monterey, California, they are physically ready and cohesive as a team, but still not fully prepared for the intensity and uncertainty they face. That they prevail as a firefighting unit is never really in doubt, but the film is more about how each of them prevails as a person.
The filmmakers have done well to get in close to their subjects but otherwise stay out of the way and let the men tell their own stories. The cinematography is both beautiful in its long shots of mountains, forests and rivers but also claustrophobic and nerve-wracking when filming the work on the big fire. In order to get this level of up-close footage, the filmmakers had to get certified themselves as wildland firefighters.
“Wildland” does a fine job depicting the real life and conditions of the wildland firefighter – the dirty, backbreaking work, the long days, the moments of beauty and transcendence. What it does even better is tell the story of challenge and aspiration, isolation and acceptance, defeat and redemption. As one man says at the end, “Fire has saved my life.”
One of the seasonal firefighters is reading Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” during the wildland season, and this book becomes a subtext for the entire film. The book’s theme of “boys traveling to be men” is beautifully and insightfully presented in this film.
“Wildland” first aired in a shorter form last fall as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. The film has been expanded with original footage to its current length of 78 minutes and is available through view-on-demand options in partnership with local theaters.
"Wildland" will be available to view on Digital HD platforms, such as iTunes and Prime Video, beginning April 30.