Last month, an email about a new documentary from director and producer Lucy Walker entitled Bring Your Own Brigade landed in my inbox, and I was immediately intrigued. This brilliant, engaging and undeniably timely film takes a look at the biggest wildfire in California’s history, the various elements that came together to contribute to the fire, and the toll that the fire took on those who found themselves (and their homes) squarely in the middle of it, and introduces audiences to some potential solutions that could prevent such fires from occurring in the future. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Lucy about how the documentary came about, what she came to learn as a result of creating this documentary, some potential solutions that could help prevent fires like this one from occurring in the future, and more. Read on to see what she had to say, and then be sure to catch the movie, which premieres in theaters on August 6th, as well as on CBSN (CBS News’ 24/7 streaming network) and Paramount+ on August 20th. I cannot recommend it highly enough, particularly if we, as a society, are to begin to move forward in a more informed manner and create safer communities in areas that are prone to fires such as the one chronicled in her film. Undoubtedly a must-see.
Andrew DeCanniere: I really thought that your documentary was so brilliantly done, and extremely eye-opening in terms of putting the whole issue of wildfires and their causes into some sort of context. To begin at the beginning, how did you decide to explore the issue in the first place?
Lucy Walker: I originally grew up in England, and then I moved to New York City. When I moved to California, I was really shocked. I wasn’t used to wildfires, and they sort of just burn right there. You can see these hillsides that are lit up. You can smell the smoke. You actually see ash dropping all over your car, or all over the sidewalk, or in your yard. I thought “What’s going on? Why can’t we put the fires out like we seem to be able to do in New York or London?” That became a kind of quest. It was a curiosity that I had. I guess I kind of realized there was more to the story. There was something wrong with this picture. I wasn’t understanding it, and that just got my curiosity going. Then, there was this huge fire called the Thomas Fire. At the time, it was the biggest fire in California’s history. I had some friends who were firefighters, and also residents who were caught up in that whole incident. It went on for around a month. It was terrible. What they were going through was so dramatic, and I was learning so much from listening to them. I thought “Gosh, somebody has to make a film about this,” and then I thought “Well, maybe it’s going to be me, because I know the firefighters and I know the residents, and no one else is doing it.”
I’m very interested in environmental issues and how we live in our environment as a community, but I also like dramatic stories where stuff happens that’s visual. It was ticking all the boxes, and I was just curious, and that was enough. You have to be pretty obsessed with a subject to make a documentary about it, because it’s so much work. So, I set about making a documentary about the biggest fire in California’s history, and I had barely gotten started when there was another, even bigger one. I thought “Well, you can’t make a film about the second-biggest fire in California’s history.” I think that if we keep having these fires, and they keep breaking records, we should get to the bottom of what is really going on, because there is obviously a big problem here. We can’t keep breaking these records and pretending that everything is normal.
Therefore, I committed myself to making a film that really got to the bottom of the whole issue. I wanted to understand what’s actually going on and whether we are safe, and I thought other people might, too. Can we live in these places or should we be packing up and heading back east or someplace? What do we do? Then, there are all of these fires around the world. Is that the same issue? I didn’t know. Is it the same as in Australia or the same as in Africa, Asia or Europe? You see terrible fires there, too. So, I wanted to understand what is going on, and then I raised a little money to make this film. I was already making the film when I met the firefighters and knew how to embed with them when, on November 8th, 2018, these terrible fires happened. These two huge incidents happened in one day, and we knew the firefighters who were being assigned to these fires, and so we were able to hop in and ride along. I’d been working on the project for almost a year already, and so we were able to really be embedded in those incidents, which turned out to be the deadliest and costliest day of fire in the state’s history — and also to meet a lot of really amazing firefighters and residents, and to follow their stories. I was learning so much and realizing it wasn’t just climate change driving these fires. There really was a lot of the story I hadn’t totally understood when I began. It turned out to be a lot of work — it was almost three-and-a-half years of work, or something like that — but we got there, and I think that the film really does get to the bottom of the subject. It does it through these incredible people I’ve met, which I really appreciate, because I don’t like making dry, boring, textbook kinds of films. I want it to be an emotional, character-driven film, where you feel like you’re meeting the actual people and are viewing it through their experiences that are lived, rather than just the dry version.
DeCanniere: I feel as though you really see the human toll exacted by the fires — between the interviews and the recordings of the calls residents made to 9-1-1. While nobody can know exactly what it is like to go through such a harrowing ordeal without having been through it themselves, I think you do get some sense of how horrific it is to find yourself in the middle of a wildfire and not know what to do, not know where to go and, in some cases, find yourself unable to evacuate. You have some idea of how harrowing it is to lose everything and, worst of all, how horrible it is to lose people. It was pretty horrific to know that some people were trapped in that situation. Things are replaceable. People are not.
Though you can’t necessarily prevent every fire and every fatality — even though I am sure we all would love to — you do say that there are a number of factors playing into this whole problem. I believe that climate change is a major factor, which you also seem to believe. And I think there is plenty of data to show that climate change is driven by human activity.
Walker: I think that’s exactly right, but I was really surprised to learn that there was more to it. When I first began, I really assumed that it was climate change alone, and that was all the explanation there is. We had these record-breaking hottest summers over the last few years, and we had these record-breaking biggest fires over the last few years, and that would explain everything. It was a real surprise to me when they said that climate change is more of a kind of performance enhancer, and that there are these other factors that really make a difference as well. For me, that was really surprising and, actually, encouraging. If there are some things we can do, that means there’s good news. It’s going to be really hard to affect climate change, but I hope that we do. However, no matter what happens with climate change, I think that there are these other factors that are going to be easier to deal with, and we are going to be able to really powerfully protect people.
When the Christians came up with the idea of hell — like, what’s the worst punishment one could possibly imagine for people who are as wicked as can be? The worst punishment they came up with was burning in a fire pit. That’s the image of hell — flames and fires. And so I thought “Gosh, that’s the worst thing that we can imagine, and that is what these fires are.” So, that really got me thinking that we have to do better than sending ourselves to hell here on earth. I was really happy to learn there are things you could do — from the way in which we build homes, to how we’re managing the forests, to how the logging industry manages their land. We can do what the Native Americans learned how to do, deliberately using fire as a tool. Instead of trying to eliminate fire completely from the landscape, we can accept that perhaps it is going to be inevitable that fires do come through — deliberately setting some controlled fires, so you can control how the fires burn when they do come along on a big, hot day with lightning at the peak of fire season, and the winds are blowing. If there is less fuel around, you’re not going to have these huge, deadly blazes that we’ve been seeing that can do so much damage. That was all news to me.
DeCanniere: It seems like there is quite a bit that could be done. So, though it can seem like a helpless or hopeless situation, in reality there are some concrete solutions. What did surprise me as well is how simple some of those solutions are. I know we can’t get into all of it here in this conversation but, for instance, I didn’t realize the logging industry can be so bad at cleaning up after themselves when they engage in certain activities. They basically left kindling around. People can also create larger breaks between structures and their landscaping. There are things like that, which are little-to-no cost, and there is just this huge return that you can see from putting in that effort.
Walker: Exactly right. I thought it was fascinating that, as you can see in the film, there are those very harrowing scenes. As you said, you can’t communicate what it’s like to be in the fire, but I think you get a real glimpse of how intense and deadly it can be. Less than a year later, you see the Town Council meeting, at which all of these measures designed to make the homes more fire-safe are presented. Some of these measures are things people can do at no cost — like not having gutters, where the leaves can get caught and catch fire really easily, or like not having vegetation within five feet of your home. If you do have vegetation within five feet, and there is a fire, it can set fire to the home. The fire science really shows how, if there is a fire, it’s not just that the home catches on fire, but it does so in a specific way. If you can act on those specific mechanisms, and specific features of the home, you can really make a difference as to whether your home burns. If your home does not burn, then your neighbor’s home is less likely to catch on fire, and so on and so on. You could save a whole neighborhood. Also, if you don’t have to evacuate a whole extra neighborhood, the roads will be clearer. These events really escalate. So, there was this Fire Chief who was begging these people to implement these updated building standards, and yet they proved unpopular. People didn’t want them — even the ones that are free. They don’t want to be told what to do. I thought it was really illuminating to be able to see how that all played out.
DeCanniere: Right. At one point it seemed like someone on the Town Council seemed to be arguing that some of the recommendations are either unenforceable or are unpopular. It just seemed so very odd to me that they are considering popularity. I know that they hold elected positions, but I think that when you are elected to office, your first responsibility is to the community and their safety. It’s not a popularity contest. As far as some of the recommendations supposedly being unenforceable, I also don’t know that I believe that. I know that where I live, there are municipal employees who see to it that certain property standards are enforced. There are rules that are enforced all the time. So, I feel as though it is perhaps a lack of will — at least to some degree — rather than these recommendations actually being unenforceable.
Walker: I thought that was fascinating, because it’s not the piece of the story you would normally think of when you look at a fire. You know, the last thing you think about are Town Council meetings — or for me it was. When I was going to those meetings, I was trying to really understand the whole story. I wasn’t expecting this big piece of the puzzle to take place during those meetings. Then I thought “That’s part of the story, too.” Who is approving these buildings? Why are we building the way that we are?
DeCanniere: Absolutely. As you said, there really is so much to it: land management, zoning, planning, the design of the properties themselves. There are all of these issues that need to be addressed. It was very striking that there was as much pushback against the recommendations as there was. These recommendations are for their safety. They weren’t just arbitrary. These are data-driven, science-driven recommendations that are for the good of the community, so I think that most people would not assume that there would be so much resistance to implementing those recommendations.
If someone told me “Do these things and your could be saving your home, your family, and your community,” My response would not be “No, thanks.” I don’t want to sound judgmental, but that’s not exactly the reaction I was expecting.
Walker: No, but I think it’s also true that when people have been through so much trauma, they are really stretched and I think that sometimes people kind of aren’t thinking as straight as they might otherwise be. That was something I observed and wondered about as well. Those people have been through so much, and you’d think it would perhaps mean that they would act rationally, in their best interests to really safeguard themselves. Actually, it could mean that human beings are emotional, irrational creatures. Also, Americans don’t like being told what do, and perhaps when they are in backed into a corner, that doesn’t go away. In fact, maybe it gets stronger as a tendency. I thought it was fascinating. I suppose one thing I was really thinking a lot when I was making the film was what kind of emotional creatures humans are. I’d talked to people who stayed to defend their home — because I would be much too scared to do that. You can hear me having a panic attack when the fire was still over the hill. So, when I asked people why they would risk their own lives, people had the strangest answers. You heard in the film that one man said he wasn’t going to lose his home he built for, and with, his deceased wife. Other people told me things, too. When you lose your belongings, what is it that actually means something? It was fascinating to me to hear. It’s the funniest things that people would sometimes care about, and that mean a great deal, isn’t it? That reminded me that human beings are not very good at long-term thinking. We’re not very good at events that are occasional or maybe will happen. We are not very good at things like dealing with climate change, which involves a lot of other people. I think it’s much easier to grasp concrete things like what’s going to happen Tuesday at lunchtime. I think we think that we’re pretty rational and sensible — that we’ve got our ‘go bag’ organized. We like to think we’ve got a plan and that we make sensible financial decisions and so forth, but I think the truth is that human beings are much more quirky and emotionally-driven than we like to admit to ourselves. I think that was interesting to think about while making this film as well — that kind of human side.
DeCanniere: And last, but not least, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Walker: One thing I would love to mention, because it is such a treat — as you could imagine — is that the film is playing in theaters from August 6th, and then will be streaming from August 20th. We’re really excited, because I think we’re the first documentary under CBSN / Paramount+. The other thing I would mention is that I’m kind of a film snob. I wanted the film to be something people would really enjoy watching, and think of as a movie that stayed with them, and gave them a lot of value for their time, and that was very interesting and compelling and emotional. Not kind of like a dry textbook. I think that sometimes you hear of documentaries about a topic, and you think “Oh, well, it must be a little bit like a seminar” or something like that. We’re not like a webinar on fire information. There’s music, and there are people, and there are stories — a beginning, middle and end — and emotion. I hope audiences will appreciate it as a movie, and not just as bullet points about understanding fire or something like that.
About Lucy Walker
Director and producer Lucy Walker is an Emmy Award-winning British film director who has twice been nominated for an Oscar and is renowned for creating riveting, character-driven nonfiction that delivers emotionally and narratively. The Hollywood Reporter called her “the new Errol Morris” and Vanity Fair has praised her unique ability to connect with audiences. Walker’s films have been shortlisted for five Oscars and nominated for seven Emmys, an Independent Spirit Award, a DGA Award and a Gotham Award, winning over 100 other film awards. For her advertising work she has been recognized with three Cannes Lions, two Clios and two Association of Independent Commercial Producers Awards, among many other honors.
Walker’s credits include feature documentaries The Crash Reel (2013), Waste Land (2010), Countdown to Zero (2010), Blindsight (2006), Devil’s Playground (2002) and short films such as The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011), and The Lion’s Mouth Opens (2014). Her television work includes 20 episodes of Nickelodeon “Blue’s Clues.”
Walker grew up in England and graduated from Oxford University with top honors and a degree in literature. There, she directed theater and musicals before winning a Fulbright scholarship to attend the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. At Tisch she earned an M.F.A. degree and directed award-winning short films. While living in New York Walker also enjoyed a successful career as a DJ and musician.
Walker is also an acclaimed virtual reality director. Her first VR experience, A History of Cuban Dance (2016), premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and showed at both the SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival. She has directed branded VR experiences for Airbnb, TOMS Shoes, Vaseline, Vice and the Buena Vista Social Club.
Walker now lives in Venice, California. In 2017 she took over organizing and curating TEDxVeniceBeach and hosted a wildly successful inaugural event featuring talks by Diane von Furstenberg, Moby and Agnès Varda, among others.