It was purely coincidence, but there was still something wonderfully strange to have Ralph Bloemers, the Executive Producer of Elemental, a gripping documentary about wildfires, talking last Friday night in our living room with my wife and I about the film while we and other neighbors were worried about the Vitae Springs wildfire in south Salem that started that day and had led to a Level 2 (Get Set) evacuation order that extended almost to our neighborhood adjacent to the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge.
Bloemers parked his camper van at our house Friday night since he had to be both at a Friday 7 pm premiere showing of the film at Salem Cinema and a Saturday 10 am showing for survivors of the Santiam Canyon fires. Ralph was a lead attorney for our neighborhood's lengthy fight against a Measure 37 subdivision some years back that Laurel and I led, which is how we came to know him so well.
Bloemers talked with us before he headed off to sleep in the van. So while worried about a nearby wildfire, we heard a lot about wildfires. Mostly reassuring messages, since I told Ralph that while we'd done quite a bit of clearing of brush and trees around our house that sits on ten mostly natural acres, we didn't want to cut down some beautiful large firs and white oaks fairly close to the house.
Echoing one of the messages of Elemental, Bloemers told us that creating defensible space around a structure is less important than hardening it against wildfire. Key to that hardening is not having bark or other flammable material within six feet of the structure, having fireproof vent screens in place if a house has a crawl space, and either not having gutters or keeping the gutters clear of debris.
The movie shows that even a very hot wildfire won't ignite a structure if the fire is over 50 feet away, I recall it was. So it's helpful to have cleared space around a structure. However, often, or usually, embers are the bigger danger to a house. And embers can fly long distances in a wildfire, especially in a strong wind. Thus there's no way a wildfire can be controlled by bare earth, since embers can travel a mile or so, igniting other fires when they land, which then create more embers.
This means that wind is worse than trees burning. Yet historically forest management has been viewed as the best way to combat wildfires -- thinning trees, clearcutting, and such. Elemental features persuasive interviews with wildfire experts who say that based on solid research, taking trees out of a forest doesn't work well to reduce wildfire risk.
In fact, the film shows a researcher talking about an Oregon fire that spread over land that included both clearcuts and old growth forest. The clearcut land fared worst in the fire, because replanting of trees created a monoculture where all the trees were about the same size, making it easy for the fire to spread through crowns close to each other, whereas the old growth forest, being much more diverse, resisted fire to a greater degree.
I've watched a lot of documentaries. Elemental is one of the best I've seen. The original photography is beautiful, and archival footage of the recent Paradise, California fire and other wildfires is expertly blended in. The film starts off by startling the viewer with scenes of the horrendous damage wildfires can do to homes/towns, and concludes by demolishing many of the myths about how wildfires should be controlled.
Putting them out sometimes isn't the wisest course of action. Native Americans knew that fire rejuvenates the land. Elemental shows current tribe members reverently setting fire to some of their land, making fire a sacred sacrament of sorts rather than an evil to be fought with brute force.
I'm sure that not everybody who sees the film will come away convinced that the policies advocated in Elemental should be followed. However, I'm confident that every viewer will find much in the film to think about, since it takes a much-needed scientific approach to dealing with wildfires. The film is shaping up to be a big success. You can see it at Salem Cinema until September 15.
Here's part of an email Ralph Bloemers sent me about the film in his Executive Producer role. (Copying and pasting led to some weirdness in the font sizes.)
Over the past five years, National Geographic and PBS Filmmakers Trip Jennings, Sara Quinn and I traveled throughout the West and across the country to visit with the top experts, indigenous fire practitioners and communities impacted by fire. We spent time capturing rebirth in the burn using time lapse and wildlife camera traps, and went into active fires with firefighters and first responders.
The result is a new film entitled Elemental - which seeks to present the thinking of top scientists in a visually compelling and engaging way that is directly relevant to most people’s lived experience - and offers solutions to keep our homes and communities safe.
Elemental has been entered into dozens of festivals and been selected for fifteen so far - including the Valley Film Festival in LA (August 6), Sonoma (September 21st), the Mill Valley Film Festival in Northern CA (early October), Sedona (Arizona), Doc Society, Greenpoint, Newburyport, Wildlife Conservation and more.
For our Portland Premiere, Senator Jeff Golden, Rep Dacia Grayber and Rep Khanh Pham co hosted the event. Willamette Week named the film it’s Top Pick, it was featured in the Oregonian and on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.
We are premiering it across Oregon and other Western states in the coming months, and doing private screenings as well. The response has been overwhelming.