The Rim of the World

On making the movie Wilder Than Wild, excerpted from Stories Make the World, Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary by Stephen Most.

            People have always used fire to protect human life from nature and to alter what nature provides. A key sequence in the story of humanity and fire is the Industrial Revolution when energy from burning fossil fuels began to drive machines. Within vehicles and factories, generators and outlets, appliances, and innumerable devices, firepower is concealed. As people in increasing numbers leave rural areas and fill cities, they perceive fire more as a threat than a tool.            The progression from firearms to dynamite, bombs, rockets, and nuclear weapons made fire the face of the enemy, a devastating force. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” are the words that came to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s mind as the first atomic bomb burst into the stratosphere above New Mexico. After World War II, the US Forest Service engaged military surplus armored bulldozers, chemical defoliants, and aircraft, ranging from helicopters to fleets of air tankers, in its “war against fire,” implementing a policy of suppressing wildfires soon after they start. This war generated its own military-industrial complex of corporations, workforces, and bureaucracies whose profits, incomes, and budgets rise as agencies fight the flames.

            Like so many wars fought between humans, this one is a losing battle. Forests that “have been born and bred of fire” are “now being destroyed by fire,” says Kelly Martin, Yosemite’s Chief of Fire and Aviation. A century of fire suppression multiplied the number of trees that grow per acre and allowed flammable vegetation to cover forest floors. An unintended consequence is that these crowded forests, when lit by lightning, uncontrolled campfires or arson, can burn intensely over large areas. Vast blackened landscapes devoid of living trees result from wildfires, or combinations of wildfires, that burn 100,000 acres or more, with a large percentage at stand-destroying high intensity.

            Wildfires of this magnitude and impact are known as megafires. Only 0.1% of the 10,000 fires the Forest Service responds to in an average year are megafires, according to fire historian Stephen Pyne, but they account “for 95% of total acres burned by wildfire and 85% of total suppression costs.”

            Megafires are wilder than wild. Even when ignited by lighting, they are, to a large extent, anthropogenic; for fires are formed by their contexts, and human beings alter those contexts locally and globally, whether through militarized fire-fighting or climate change. Of the largest wildfires in the United States (excluding Alaska) in the last hundred years, four out of five of have occurred in this young century. Fires that have covered vast landscapes in recent decades include the Black Christmas bushfires in Australia that burned 740,000 acres in 2001-2; the Croatian coast fires of 2007, raging across almost 400,000 acres; the peat fires and wildfires in central and western Russia that blackened hundreds of thousands of acres during an unprecedented heat wave in 2010; and the Fort McMurray wildfire that burned 1,457,000 acres and destroyed nearly 2,400 homes in an oil sands boom town in Alberta, Canada in 2016. Six years earlier, Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev had declared, “practically everything is burning. The weather is anomalously hot. What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us.” That wake-up call failed to slow the excavation of fossil fuels in western Canada.

            On the day when wildfire forced the evacuation of 90,000 people from Fort McMurray, I was in Sacramento to interview Mary Nichols, the head of California’s Air Quality Control Board. “Forests are both a victim of climate change,” she told me, “and they’re also contributing to global emissions.” Globally, she said, research shows that deforestation, including the loss of forested areas due to fire, is “as big a source of greenhouse gas emissions as transportation worldwide.”

            This is a vicious cycle. Atmospheric carbon build-up puts forests under stress by shortening winters, raising temperatures, and drying out lands even where there is no drought. In crowded forests, trees that struggle to receive adequate light and moisture become vulnerable to insect infestation. Dead trees, which number in the hundreds of millions, covering tens of thousands of square miles in the United States alone, become kindling when fire strikes right after they die with leaves and needles still clinging to their branches and when they fall in a crisscrossing jumble. Weird weather, including extreme winds that spread wildfires high and far at astonishing speeds, can turn a beneficial forest fire into a megafire. The resulting smoke, rising in towering pyrocumulus clouds and blown across continents, adds to the greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

            Like other phenomena related to climate change, megafires are visually spectacular. But the task of making a documentary “wake-up call,” which I took on after California’s Rim Fire, faced numerous obstacles.

            Each fire is a story in itself, with its own particular geography and conditions, a story that dies down as the fire dies out. And the relationship between a particular megafire and climate change is hard to pin down. Like forest fires themselves, very little of which can be portrayed in one sequence on a screen, climate change is too big a picture to see.  

            And each fire is complicated, with a combination of positive and negative effects, the evaluation of which depends not only on facts but also on one’s point of view. There is a virtuous cycle of fire in forests. Many forests evolved with fire. They need fire to generate new growth and clear space for wildlife. A study of the benefits of wildfire for forest ecosystems by Aldo Leopold’s son Starker, a professor of Zoology and Forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, led the National Park Service to initiate a program of prescribed burns and managed wildfires at Sequoia National Park in 1971.

            A documentary that does justice to the complexity of this subject must contend with polarized and deeply entrenched ideas about fire. Some maintain that all fire is bad, an idea that serves the fire-industrial complex whose mascot is Smokey, for whom there are degrees of fire danger and no fire opportunities. Others believe that all fire is natural and therefore good. That is the credo of environmental organizations whose mentor is Muir.

            I thought that the Rim Fire could serve as a megafire poster child because of the treasured landscapes of its burn area, their uses by vacationers, and the ecosystem services of wildlife diversity, hydroelectricity, and water and carbon storage that the forests of the Sierra Nevada provide. The sight of that fire, with its gigantic flames and towering smoke clouds, amazed even veteran fire fighters, and the shock and sense of loss of those who experienced it were palpable.

            It began on August 17th, 2013, the day that my wife and I drove to a tent cabin near a Sierra Nevada lake where we enjoy a week of hiking and swimming, kayaking and grilling each year. More than 100 miles to the south, a bow-hunter lost control of his campfire along the Clavey River near its confluence with the Tuolumne. The terrain was steep and far from access roads. A helicopter rescued the hapless hunter, who would face federal charges for igniting what became the largest forest fire in California history. In two astonishing days, the fire raced across 88,000 acres, thrusting pyrocumulus clouds 40,000 feet into the stratosphere. “This fire was burning with a ferocity we rarely see,” said CalFire Unit Chief Josh White. “It was explosive.”

            The Rim Fire was named for the Rim of the World vista point, which overlooks much of the initial burn area. Eventually this uncontrollable wildfire torched at high intensity and scorched at low intensity a quarter of a million acres, mainly in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. The smoke it generated blew north across the continent into Winnipeg, east over Kansas City, and south to the Gulf of Mexico, darkening skies with enough carbon to produce 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline.

            The Rim Fire threatened the giant sequoia groves of Yosemite, whose majestic landscapes attract millions of visitors each year. It imperiled the water and power supply of the San Francisco Bay Area: lines of power poles extending northwest from O’Shaughnessy Dam, which turns Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir, fed the flames; the Kirkwood Power Station, which houses a hydroelectric generator, bore ten million dollars worth of damage; and the fire bared lands along the Tuolumne River, increasing the odds for water-polluting erosion. Summer camps and towns in the path of the Rim Fire were evacuated. Berkeley’s Tuolumne Camp was razed. Vacationers lost favorite places to hike, fish, go hunting and watch birds, while countless wild creatures—including black bears, flying squirrels, mule deer, red foxes, fishers, and martens, to name only mammals—were incinerated. No humans died, however, as had happened earlier that year, in July, when the Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters in Arizona. And unlike the Powerhouse Fire in June, which destroyed 58 structures, including 24 homes on forested land north of Los Angeles, the Rim Fire did not damage many properties. By the time it came under control in late October, the Rim Fire had become old news.

            Just as the Big Blowup—the historic wildfire that consumed three million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana in 1910—transformed the Forest Service, inspiring its fire suppression practices, it seemed possible that the Rim Fire, with its high profile, could produce forest management policies responsive to the dangerous combination of fuel build-up, drought, and climate change. I imagined that a film could contribute to movement in that direction; for as Pyne wrote with reference to “the Big Blowout”—the Yellowstone fires that burned 793,880 acres in 1988—”The meaning of the flames would depend on what kind of story grew out of the ashes.”

            Kevin White, who directed A Land Between Rivers, agreed to join the Megafire Film Project as its director. An out-going outdoorsman, he goes fishing at every opportunity and brings his family to Camp Mather, which barely escaped destruction by the Rim Fire, every summer. Malcolm North became the project’s science advisor. A forest ecologist who teaches in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis and conducts research for the US Forest Service, North leads a twenty-year study of fire and forest health at the Teakettle Experimental Forest in the mountains above the Central Valley.

            In doing our initial research for the film, Kevin and I cast a wide net, meeting people we might potentially interview on camera but who, in any case, were able to educate us about the Rim Fire. They included ranchers, a Tuolumne County Supervisor, the emergency services coordinator for the county, a timber man, a conservationist, Forest Service personnel including a hotshot crew leader and the Stanislaus Forest Supervisor, and Kelly Martin, who took us on a fire history tour of Yosemite National Park. One of the ranchers, Stuart Crook, told us that on August 22nd, the day the Rim Fire consumed 50,000 acres, he lost ninety head of cattle, his cabin burned down, and he and his wife were nearly killed when wildfire blew over them as they tried to escape in a pickup truck. The emergency manager, Tracie Riggs, told us she slept by the phone while working 18-hour days for 21 days straight, evacuating a thousand people from their homes and arranging for the Red Cross and local residents to provide shelter and food. These were stories that a documentary might not capture for lack of images but which gave us a feeling both for the impact of the Rim Fire on many lives and for the sense of community it forged.

            Prior to making a broadcast-length documentary about megafires, Kevin and I produced a 13-minute prequel, “The Fire Next Time,” which we posted on Vimeo. It emphasizes the fact that the Rim Fire, in some areas, did good ecological work, reintroducing fire the forest needed, while in other areas it killed almost everything, leaving vast stands of black snags in its wake. Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski walks through an area where “it was just an underburn that came through here. You can see how it took out the little trees, which really is what we want to happen.” Conservationist John Buckley looks out on a landscape where the Rim Fire “incinerated everything that was on the forest floor, it incinerated the ladder trees, the bushes, the small trees, and it killed everything in the overstory, in the canopy.” The show also emphasizes the importance of setting prescribed fires in order to save forests from high intensity, stand-destroying blazes. The giant sequoias of Yosemite were unharmed, explains Kelly Martin, “because there really isn’t the continuity of fuels after a prescribed burn. So it really limits the severity and the intensity of a wildfire when it approaches a prescribed fire—it just has nothing left to burn.”

            In order to convey the idea that wildland fire can be a good thing, that it is a natural ecological process and that there’s a need to fight catastrophic fires with fire, the film had to address two adversaries: Smokey and smoke.

            Regarding smoke, Kelly Martin says, “We know for sure that air quality and impacts of smoke to airports and schools and communities is a significant effect that we’re going to see into the future. But if we don’t accept some of that now, we’re going to pay for it down the road in the Rim Fires [to come].” In contrast to a prescribed fire, Malcolm North warns that a wildfire that hits a forest deprived of fire will “release a lot of carbon, and furthermore the smoke that it puts out, you’re not going to have any control [of] when that smoke happens and where it goes.” Initiating a prescribed burn requires Air Quality Board approval and public support. “The Fire Next Time” aimed at winning that approval and gaining that support.

            As for Smokey Bear, whether he appears on signs announcing today’s degree of fire danger or stars in ads warning about fire, Smokey suggests that all wildfires must be prevented. The idea that forests need fires is foreign to his worldview. In “The Fire Next Time,” following a cartoon in which the Bear delivers his famous line, “So remember: only YOU can prevent forest fires,” North remarks, “The problem is that there’s an implied message with what Smokey says that is not beneficial and is not consistent with the science.”

            Except in the final version of the video, that’s not what he says. After executive producer Al Sample screened “The Fire Next Time” for the board of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, a board member who is an associate deputy chief of the Forest Service thought her agency might have a problem with the Smokey sequence.

            That’s how I learned that Smokey has spin doctors. His people objected to hearing a Forest Service scientist find a problem with what Smokey’s message implies. They questioned whether their iconic bear had to be in the video at all. If he had to be in it, they wanted Malcolm North’s statement removed.

            This objection created a dilemma for Kevin White and myself. It was through the Forest Service that the video would best be able to reach the rural audiences that need to understand that by enduring smoke from prescribed fires, they can help keep forests from going up in smoke. It seemed ridiculous to let a quibble over the image of a cartoon character limit the effectiveness of “The Fire Next Time.”

            Lengthy negotiations ensued, leading to a compromise. North’s line about Smokey’s implied message was replaced by another soundbite. After the ad in which Smokey Bear says only YOU, etc., the ecologist remarks, “It is a very emphatic message. The problem is, fire is inevitable in these forests. We have a history of putting fires out, and we’ve come to understand, particularly over the last several decades, that many of these forests evolved with frequent low-intensity fire.” North makes his point without putting Smokey in his place.

            Having cleared Smokey’s censors, “The Fire Next Time” played 12,000 times in its first month of streaming via Vimeo. Since then it has been shown at a California State Capitol screening for legislators and their aides, at a seminar of the National Water Resources Association, at a Forest Service regional leadership meeting, at an Air and Smoke Council meeting of the California Air Resources Board, at a benefit for Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, at San Francisco’s Camp Mather, and in several film festivals, one of which, the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, offered it for screenings on a year-long, worldwide tour to more than 200 cities.

            One organization I sent the video to was Earth Island Institute. Founded by David Brower and now led by John Knox, Earth Island is a big tent covering various rings of environmental activists. I worked with Brower in 1982, the year he started Earth Island Institute, doing video interviews for his conference On the Fate of the Earth. It was then, interviewing Lester Brown, the founder of Worldwatch Institute, that I first learned about climate change. “As we burn fossil fuels and as we deforest the Earth,” he said, “we find atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide rising.” Brown spoke of the need “to begin asking ourselves how can we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, how can we burn less, how can we reforest the Earth so as to incorporate more carbon dioxide in organic materials.”

            After watching “The Fire Next Time,” John Knox emailed me, “Great to see this. Let me cc some colleagues who might be especially interested in this video.” One colleague, the editor of the online Earth Island Journal, said he would post “The Fire Next Time.” Two hours later, however, he wrote, “due to concerns about the film’s scientific accuracy, we’re not going to be able to post this on our website.”

            The claim that “The Fire Next Time” lacks “scientific accuracy” came from Chad Hanson and Rachel Fazio, whose John Muir Project uses Earth Island’s non-profit status. Hanson and Fazio, who both have law degrees, unsuccessfully sued the Forest Service, attempting to stop its post-Rim Fire recovery efforts. They did so citing scientific studies. “Patches of high intensity fire, wherein most or all trees are killed, creates [sic] ‘snag forest habitat,'” explained Hanson in Earth Island Journal, and this is “one of the most ecologically important forest habitat types.” He had a point. Severe natural disturbances, like the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, can generate rampant growth. As one study observes, “species-diverse plant communities develop because substantial amounts of previously limited resources (light, moisture, and nutrients) become available.” From Hanson’s perspective, the expanses of snag forest left in the wake of the Rim Fire provide such crucial habitat for black-backed woodpeckers and other species that those who, like John Buckley, lament the megafire’s incineration of old growth forests are wrong to do so.    

            Hanson’s problem with “The Fire Next Time” was not scientific accuracy but rather its representation of a megafire’s negative consequences. Hanson minimizes the loss of carbon storage and the destruction of old-growth forests and instead emphasizes the wildlife habitat snag forests provide—a claim that his studies substantiate. The real issue between us was our choice as opposed to his and Fazio’s of which facts are important. That difference depends upon our respective worldviews.

            When Kevin White and I interviewed Hanson for our broadcast-length documentary about megafires, Wilder Than Wild, he said, “Most of what the public thinks about wildland fire and therefore most of what the policymakers think, and land managers, and the media thinks is basically based on mythology.” He would have us believe that unlike those who have had first-hand experience working with fire and land management throughout their careers, whose views he dismisses as mythology, his thinking is based on science. Yet his claim that the knowledge of those who do not share his worldview consists of opinions—or, as he puts it, a mythology—is an opinion that none of his facts substantiate.

            The failure to distinguish between fact and opinion is characteristic of an era in which information is limitless in quantity, immediately available, and removed from contexts that ground it in reality. Self-reinforcing mindsets pick and choose whichever facts lend them credibility while ignoring the commitment to factual truth on which science is based. Absent the recognition that opinions contrary to one’s own may be based on facts one does not know, a person is caught within the whirlpool of a closed worldview.

            A crucial distinction between worldviews divides those that are low context, focusing on a particular interest or issue, from those that are high context, taking all potentially relevant considerations into account. Advocacy, which is the job of a lawyer, and impartiality, which is the responsibility of a scientist, are often on opposite shores of this gulf, although there is also high-context advocacy, like that of politicians who understand the full range of their constituents’ interests and issues, and no- to low-context impartiality, as is found among narrowly specialized scientists and doctors who examine symptoms while disregarding information about a patient’s life. Low-context advocates like Hanson dismiss every fact that contradicts the assertions that make their case. Documentary filmmakers, like high-context scientists who seek out contradictory facts in order to attain knowledge and develop theories, acknowledge every valid perspective in attempting to grasp the big picture.

            This low-versus-high context dichotomy is often revealed in arguments between preservationists and conservationists over forest management. Opposition to forestry for the sake of pristine nature, which Chad Hanson carries on under the banner of his John Muir Project, began with the battle between John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, and the founding Chief of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. Muir was a preservationist who revered wilderness, which he sought to save from human intervention. Pinchot was a conservationist who thought that natural places could not be saved for “the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run” unless the government allowed for their “wise use.” Hanson is in agreement with Malcolm North (his former professor at UC Davis where he received a PhD) that wildfire is natural and needed to restore forest ecosystems. Yet in the spirit of Muir, he and some other environmentalists oppose treatments that facilitate the spread of fire and reduce the crowding of fuels in overplanted forests. They want nature to take its course even when the results include the replacement of old-growth forests with stands of dead trees.

            The storyline that validates preservationism is the fight to save natural places like Hetch Hetchy Valley, the damming of which Muir failed to prevent, and to protect species like the wild salmon of the Klamath River, whose survival is threatened by dam construction, road building, logging, the spraying of toxic chemicals in forests, and various other human activities. These battles are waged both in the court of public opinion and in courtrooms, using the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, many of which were enacted in the 1970s. Most environmental organizations are non-profits that raise money by making dramatic appeals to support their fighting of righteous fights. Consequently, environmental storytelling tends to be a melodrama in which the activists are heroes, wildlands and at-risk species are victims to be saved, and the antagonists are predatory industries and government agencies.

            The timber industry and the Forest Service earned villains’ roles during the 1970s, when the Forest Service permitted clear-cutting in the Monongahela and Bitterroot National Forests. Confessed former Bitterrroot Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels in The Greatest Good, a documentary history of the Forest Service, “the agency got caught up in that [get-out-the-cut] scenario and we went to the dark side. We begin to be driven by our budget and we begin to be driven by the political pressures and the needs of communities and we were cutting more than we should.” During the ’80’s when the Reagan Administration authorized the harvesting of up to twenty billion board feet per year, the Forest Service logged old-growth forests and built roads through remote wildlands as never before.

            In opposition, environmentalists used the northern spotted owl, which was listed under the Endangered Species Act, as the poster child in their campaign to stop the destruction of biodiverse old-growth forests. A plot turn came when the over-abundance of lumber collided with a collapse of the housing market. The resulting decline of the timber industry impoverished rural communities, a calamity which the industry, in its storytelling, blamed on tree-hugging environmentalists. The bitter polarization that scenario provoked has persisted to this day. The economy and the environment, the human and natural worlds, were considered to be incompatible. Not surprisingly, “The Fire Next Time,” which calls for forest management to limit damage from megafires, was perceived by the John Muir Project to be on the dark side of this right-versus-wrong melodrama, with the black-backed woodpecker, which thrives among dead trees, playing the part of the spotted owl.

            When appealing to Congress for appropriations, the Forest Service invokes its own storyline, and this too stands in the way of wise action in response to megafires. After chief forester Gifford Pinchot got fired in a dispute with President Taft over conservation versus corrupt exploitation of public lands, the agency needed a compelling objective to justify its survival. The Big Blowup of 1910 struck just in time for the Forest Service to rise of out its ashes as a fire-fighting operation. From there came the smokejumpers, hotshot crews, initial attack helicopter missions, and incident command teams whose objective is to put out wildfires as soon as possible.

            Fighting wildfire is a heroic task, especially when there are victims to protect: not only wildlife and commercially valuable trees but also, as housing increasingly encroaches on wild public lands, the lives and properties in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Currently, fire suppression consumes over half of the Forest Service budget, leaving scant funds for preventive measures such as thinning and prescribed burns.

            Which stories can improve this picture? Smokey Bear’s implied message that all wildfires are dangerous and therefore bad and Hanson’s claim that all wildfires are natural and therefore good have white-versus-black-hat stagecraft in common. There is history behind and truth within both sides of the story, but only a multifaceted view, worthy of the ecosystems these antagonists would defend, can draw light from the heat of this subject.

            Both documentary storytelling and a politics aimed at restoring the common ground have insights to gain from ecological understanding. An ecosystem is comprised of the interrelationships of living organisms and their environments. Mutualisms are connective tissue between different forms of life, as when truffles evolve with aromas that appeal to the small mammals that eat and spread them around, or when a fungal network colonizes tree roots, receiving carbohydrates as it transports water and nutrients from plant to plant. When one thinks like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold learned to do, it becomes clear that predators and their prey are interdependent. Without wolves to limit their numbers, deer populations destroy so much vegetation that they starve and cannot reproduce. Realizing that human beings live and work within the web of ecological relationships, Leopold, while managing forests for the sake of the forest and wild habitats for the sake of wildlife, formed alliances between groups that had been adversaries—ranchers and rangers in New Mexico, farmers and hunters in Wisconsin; for he knew they had mutual interests, namely the vitality of the lands they relied on.

            A political ecosystem of this kind formed in the central Sierra five years before the Rim Fire. And although it is difficult to represent an organization in a documentary, Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions had to be part of the picture.

            YSS is a stakeholders’ collaborative. It “brought together the local folks that live here who have an interest in how this part of the forest is managed,” explained Susan Skalski. “We had environmental groups, we had farm bureau, we have local loggers, we have local industry, we have elected officials, we have county participation.” The co-chairs of YSS are a logger, Mike Albrecht, whose company is Sierra Resource Management, and John Buckley, who heads the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. Member organizations include the Central Sierra Audubon Society, the California Forestry Association, the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, the Tuolumne Mi-Wuk Tribal Council, Tuolumne River Trust, Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, and Dambacher Construction. The US Forest Service and Yosemite National Park are liaison members.

            Forest Supervisor Skalski convened YSS in 2008 because she anticipated a megafire. “We needed to bring folks together and help us figure out how are we going to thin these forests, help make them more fire resilient, as well as enhance other values within the forest, and yet there isn’t enough federal funding to do that.”

            Skalski had reason to expect a catastrophic fire. A generation had passed since the last one. In 1987, the Stanislaus Complex Fire burned147,000 acres. Some of its burn area overlaps the footprint of the Rim Fire. Unlike the virtuous cycle of ecologically beneficial wildfires, the vicious cycle of megafires is due to human errors of omission and commission. Fire suppression is one error of commission. Another is planting within the burn area rows of seedlings that grow into dense stands of trees to facilitate logging. The errors of omission include the failure to use prescribed fire and thinning on extensive portions of the replanted forest.

            An irony that I hoped my film could capture is that almost everything that those who cared about the forest did after the 1987 Complex Fire was wrong. The dramatic question the full-length megafire documentary might raise is whether history will repeat itself. Will obstructionist lawsuits, lack of funding for prescribed burns, and industry-favored silvicultural replanting build up kindling for future megafires and increase deforestation over the long run?

            The Rim Fire gave YSS a renewed sense of purpose. The collaborative worked with the Forest Service on its post-fire restoration and replanting plans. In contrast to the adversarial tactics of the John Muir Project, their work was consensual, using scientific evidence and reasoned arguments to resolve conflicts and reach agreement without reliance on litigation. They took economic concerns as well as ecological values into account, recognizing that the Sierra economy depends upon the health and resilience of the land. If preservationist politics is binary, ecological politics is multivalent, considering information, interests, and impacts from all points of the compass.

            The YSS stakeholders had an example of a resilient forest to work toward due to a study by research ecologist Eric Knapp that was actualized in the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest. They invited media to tour the experimental forest to publicize its back-to-the-future approach to forest management.

            The last major fire occurred there in 1889. Until the Gold Rush, this forest just north of the Stanislaus Complex Fire and Rim Fire burn areas had wildfires every six years on average. Back then it was low in density, with a mix of individual trees, clumps of trees, and open spaces. The experimental forest left an unmanaged high-density area intact for comparison with the managed plots that were shaped by combinations of thinning and prescribed fires to resemble the pre-Gold Rush forest. The core idea, explained by North and Knapp, is that low-density mixed conifer forests of this kind are resilient to major wildfires, sequester the most carbon, have the lowest CO2 emissions, and store precipitation efficiently, while providing abundant habitat for at-risk wildlife, particularly fishers, goshawks and spotted owls. This could be the objective for the restoration of central Sierra forests. Progress toward that goal could, I thought, give the last act of the megafire film a promising sequence.

            Every drama, be it comedy or tragedy, depends on things going wrong. Over the objections of YSS, the Forest Service initiated a replanting program that would restore the kind of dense, easily harvestable forest that the Rim Fire destroyed, though with fewer trees per acre than were planted after the Complex Fire. My production filmed a lovely replanting scene by 250 volunteers including war veterans, girl scouts, and members of Americorps’ National Civilian Community Corps. Separated into two groups, adults and children guided by adults, they worked upon a bulldozed mountainside. The Complex Fire had consumed trees that forested that land until 1987. Many of the trees planted after that fire perished 26 years later in the Rim Fire. I wondered whether the thousands of pine seedlings placed ten feet apart in holes dug into the ground above Buck Meadows in 2016 would reach maturity. Were those volunteers planting trees for a future forest or fuel for the next megafire?

            Another mistake the Forest Service seemed intent on perpetuating was its fire suppression policy. An article in Science, whose lead author is Malcolm North, states a truth that is almost universally acknowledged: “Changing climate and decades of fuel accumulation make efforts to suppress every fire dangerous, expensive, and ill advised.” Yet the agency, unwilling to let its scientists weigh in publicly on policy decisions, tried to stop Science from publishing the piece. When that failed, the Forest Service asked for North’s name, or at least his affiliation, to be removed. When Science published the article unchanged, the Forest Service barred North from speaking to the media.

            Blowing in the wind right after the Rim Fire was the possibility that in response, the Forest Service would change direction as significantly as after the Big Blowup of 1910. Instead, feeling the prevailing winds several years later, I expected history to repeat itself, as Marx said, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” If the Rim Fire was the tragedy that followed the 1987 Complex Fire, the genre of the next megafire could be tragic farce—tragic in its effects, farcical due to its cause—characters persisting in fixed behaviors regardless of bad results. It would dramatize another maxim by Karl Marx, “The traditions of all the dead generations burden, like a nightmare, the minds of the living.”

            With that storyline yet to be resolved, Kevin White and I looked elsewhere to give the last act a sense of closure.

            One difference between the Park Service and the Forest Service is that for decades, the former agency has the policy of allowing wildfires to burn whenever and wherever it is safe and beneficial to do so; and the prescribed burns it conducted on park lands before the Rim Fire in 2013 and the Rough Fire in 2015 protected groves of ancient giant sequoias, which are among the oldest living beings on Earth. Showing the success of prescribed burns in saving an irreplaceable legacy could bring the film into focus.

            Another difference between the Park Service and the Forest Service is that large portions of the latter’s territory, especially in the West, are still Indian land. It has occurred to some managers of the national forest that indigenous forestry, which burned the land regularly, succeeded in doing “the greatest good for the greatest number” for a very long run indeed. In California, traditional ecological knowledge remains intact in the Klamath Basin, whose narrow, thickly forested river valleys are ripe for catastrophic burning. And it so happens that the newly appointed Forest Supervisor of the Six Rivers National Forest, which straddles the Klamath River, is a former chair of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, Merv George Junior.

            Could the traditions that survived through countless generations of California Indians awaken minds from the nightmares of forest mismanagement? Does Merv George favor continuing fire suppression or does he support prescribed burns and managed wildfires in collaboration with tribes and non-Indian communities? Was ecological partnership possible in a region marked historically by conflicts between tribes and non-Indians, between tribes and neighboring tribes, between environmental activists and loggers? I asked George these questions the day after his first grandchild was born, beginning a new generation of his family. He told me he intends to combine traditional ecological knowledge with the best available science in restoring the security and vitality of his homeland. Already, he has funneled Forest Service funding into TREX, the Klamath River fire training exchange, a citizen-driven coalition of local, tribal, state and federal prescribed burners linked to the national Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils.

            I also interviewed Tommy Willson, a member of the Yurok Tribal Council who spearheads his tribe’s prescribed burning program. “Smokey Bear kills bears,” Willson told me. The forest is too dense to grow the berries bears need to survive the winter, he explained, standing on the deck of his cabin near the Trinity-Klamath confluence. We were able to see the river because Willson had burned the thicket of riparian trees below us.

            Time and chance happen to all, as Ecclesiastes says, and that applies especially to documentary filmmaking. What goes into a documentary depends largely on the filmmaker’s access to the subject, the time when the film is produced, and the length of time it takes to complete it, which often depends on the availability of funding. At this point, there is no telling when the movie will be finished. Nor is it clear what can be created from the assembled footage. Until the editing process is underway, it will be hard to predict whether there will be a central character, how the elements will work together to form a story, and how that story will end—a crucial question to answer, since the meaning of a story flows from its resolution.

Stephen Most, Kevin White, and Gina Leibrecht

            With the ending unresolved, the framing of the entire film remains open. How small or how large might that frame be to contain a picture that is both coherent and illuminating?

            Instead of focusing on a specific gigantic wildfire and building out from there to look at fires and forestry in this country in this century, Kevin White and I could make our large subject small by looking at it from a planetary perspective. Megafires are seen from space. The Rim Fire was photographed from a NASA satellite. Metaphorically, the Rim of the World vista point, which gave the fire its name, is the Earth’s horizon as seen by an astronaut.

            A movie about wildfires in the Anthropocene implicitly asks whether humanity’s relationship with fire and forests will enter a new phase. One certainty about the documentary Kevin White and I are producing is that it will be one story in a succession of stories whose subject has driven human evolution; a subject both familiar and strange, creative and destructive, precisely controlled and largely beyond control. As different kinds of fire fuel the technologies that people use, wildfire on the ground and carbon in the atmosphere will continue to eradicate boundaries between the human and natural worlds, transforming lives in ways that stories will reveal in times to come. 

Excerpted from Stories Make the World, Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary by Stephen Most .

Courtesy of Berghahn Books, copyright, 2017.


An updated version of the one-hour documentary, Wilder than Wild,  is available to screen on demand on Vimeo.

Read Risa Nye’s new review of the film and explore related videos and articles on EatDrinkFilms.

          Author Stephen Most explains, “This chapter from my book does provide context for the film, and it gives a behind-the-scenes view of the choices facing Kevin and me as we made Wilder than Wild

The book was published before we finished the film and before the wine country wildfires, which ignited three years ago today (September 7, 2020), brought our subject to the alarmed attention of urban Californians. Much has been written and shown about megafires and their relationship to climate change since then. But the question of how to respond to this crisis still lacks both an adequate answer and the political will that can meet the challenge.”


Stephen Most is an author, playwright, and filmmaker. He has writing credits on four Academy Award-nominated and five Emmy-winning documentaries. His works include a book, a film, and three plays about the Klamath Basin;  In Stories Make the World: Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary he shows how subjects in the world can be depicted as stories for the screen.
Documentary films he has scripted include Oil On Ice, which is about the controversy over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; The Greatest Good, a history of the US Forest Service; and A Land Between Rivers, a history of central California. Wonders of Nature, which he wrote for the “Great Wonders of the World” series, won an Emmy for best special non-fiction program. Promises, on which he worked as Consulting Writer and Researcher, won Emmys for best documentary and outstanding background analysis and research. The Bridge So Far: A Suspense Story, won a best-documentary Emmy. Berkeley in the Sixties, which Most co-wrote, received an Academy Award nomination. He is the writer / producer of the documentary River of Renewal, which won the “best documentary feature” award at the American Indian Film Festival.

Most wrote the “Theater of History” for the permanent exhibit of the Washington State History Museum: more than ninety audio voices spoken by characters from various aspects of the State’s history represented by American Indian masks, monochromatic mannequins, and photographs on stage sets and in dioramas. His play A Free Country, which was produced by the Seattle Group Theater in 1997, is based on the characters in the Hooverville shack diorama. His other plays include Poe, Raven’s Seed, Watershed, and Forces of Nature. In addition, he has written plays for and with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Dell’Arte Players Company. Visit his website.
EatDrinkFilms published another excerpt from Stephen’s book about The Promise.
His books River of Renewal and  Stories Make the World can be ordered from your local independent bookstore or via Indiebound and Amazon.
“Since the beginning of human history, stories have helped people make sense of their lives and their world. Today, an understanding of storytelling is invaluable as we seek to orient ourselves within a flood of raw information and an unprecedented variety of supposedly true accounts. In Stories Make the World, award-winning screenwriter Stephen Most offers a captivating, refreshingly heartfelt exploration of how documentary filmmakers and other storytellers come to understand their subjects and cast light on the world through their art. Drawing on the author’s decades of experience behind the scenes of television and film documentaries, this is an indispensable account of the principles and paradoxes that attend the quest to represent reality truthfully.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s