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When British filmmaker Lucy Walker moved to Los Angeles in 2008, she was struck by a seasonal phenomenon many residents of the Western U.S. had come to accept as normal: raging and increasingly deadly wildfires. “I was thinking, ‘Why is nobody making a film about this?'” says Walker, who lives in Venice.
Armed with the curiosity of an outsider, Walker, who earned an Oscar nomination for her 2010 feature documentary Waste Land, about an artist who scavenges at a massive landfill in Rio, already had raised some financing from online education pioneer Lynda Weinman to make a documentary on the 2017 Thomas Fire. Suddenly, two horrifying new California case studies arrived almost simultaneously in November 2018 — the Camp Fire in the Northern California town of Paradise and the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, which together killed 88 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Walker pivoted to capture the historic 2018 events. Her resulting film, Bring Your Own Brigade, arrives in theaters Aug. 6 and on streaming services CBSN and Paramount+ on Aug. 20, just as an early, ominous start to the West’s 2021 wildfire season has sent smoke as far east as Maine and brought a new threat, the Dixie Fire, to the same community the Camp Fire ravaged.
Walker has a knack for gaining access to insular communities, as she did in her debut documentary about Amish teenagers, 2002’s Devil’s Playground; with the help of Bring Your Own Brigade producer Holly Becker’s family ties to the Los Angeles Fire Department, she was able to embed with firefighting crews. Shooting with a small team, often just herself, a camera operator and a sound person, Walker gets uncomfortably close to the flames, her panic palpable from outside the frame. But some of the film’s most harrowing footage comes from the months she spent in Paradise during the aftermath of the fires. “It looked like a zombie movie set,” Walker says. “The cars were just puddles of melted aluminum. And the smell of dead animals. The body-team people coming through looking for bodies. It’s a landscape that haunts you.”
When Walker set out to make the film, she assumed she would document climate change as the key reason for wildfires around the globe getting hotter and deadlier. But her research revealed a much more complicated picture, one having to do with logging practices and building habits. Walker’s footage from local town meetings reveals angry residents who are often disinterested in fire department guidance on building and landscaping practices. Says Walker, “If you wonder how this keeps happening, watch this.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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