Behind the Front Lines With a Wildland Firefighting Hotshot Crew
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the word countless times this summer and fall: wildfire. And yet, past the occasional snippet in our flash-in-the-pan news cycle, most people don’t know much of anything about wildfire, not least of which is the badass, thankless work of wildland firefighters combating one of climate change’s most destructive forces. Filmmaker Matthew Irving wanted to change that, so when the Grizzly Creek Fire ripped through Colorado earlier this year, Irving grabbed his camera.
MEN’S JOURNAL: Why is telling this story, giving attention to the work of wildland firefighters important?
MATTHEW IRVING: I don’t think anybody really understands how hard hotshot crews work. Most media focuses on acres burned and structures destroyed, but behind the numbers are men and women working tirelessly behind the scenes to manage one of the most chaotic forces of nature.
A typical hotshot crew works 16-hour days for two weeks straight with two days off. They’ll usually get the more complex assignments and work their asses off, ending the day with a caloric deficit. You don’t really get in shape throughout the season. It’s more like you show up in shape at the beginning of the season, then spend the rest of the summer wasting away until you’re a shell of a human.
Can you break down what is happening in the film?
In the first half, the Alpine Interagency Hotshot Crew (Alpine IHC) is seen going indirect, which means creating a line far away from the head of the fire, and burning off a chunk of it, so that when the main fire arrives, it has a big buffer of black that it can’t jump. The second half of the story has Ruby Mountain IHC going direct, which means that fire activity has died down enough on this specific division that they’re able to hike in a few miles to the fire line, and try to keep it in check—using helicopters, chainsaws, and hand tools. This tactic isn’t possible when the fire is actively making a run in the timber. When that happens, there really isn’t anything anyone can do, other than pull back to a safety zone and reassess options.
As people build more homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI), managing wildfires becomes more problematic. Fires that would normally be allowed to burn now have to be suppressed, which causes a buildup of fuels, which leads to more extreme fire behavior, which leads to wildland firefighters unnecessarily putting their lives on the line to save shitty-ass mansion. It’s a difficult cycle to break.
What was the most daunting part of filming? Any scary or surprising moments?
When I was younger, I worked on several hotshot crews during the summer, so I’ve seen my fair share of crazy fire activity. Some of the scenes that appear to be sketchy are actually quite controlled, but that’s something that you wouldn’t be able to tell unless you’ve spent a lot of time out on the line. As boring as this sounds, the two most difficult aspects of filming wildland fires are getting access and reassuring the crews that you’re not a total idiot.
The majority of content you see in the media is filmed roadside, and that’s something that I’ve always hated. You don’t ever get to see hotshot crews in their element, which is typically in the backcountry on all the hardest assignments. I get why reporters aren’t usually allowed out with crews, because it isn’t always the safest, but it doesn’t paint a very accurate picture of the hard work they’re putting in.
Gaining the crew’s trust in such a short amount of time was one of the more stressful aspects of filming. I’m sure I sounded like an idiot when I’d introduce myself and immediately mention that I used to be on a hotshot crew, but the mentality on hotshot crews is if you have a camera and a fresh yellow Nomex shirt, you’re probably an idiot. At least, that’s how I felt back when I was on a hotshot crew. Did I mention I was on a hotshot crew? I was. I also climbed Mount Everest.
How did you come up with the idea?
Admittedly, this short is an ode to the first few minutes of The Fall, a film by Tarsem Singh that is one of the most beautiful pieces of cinematography on the planet. I saw it shortly after it came out back in 2006 and it has sat with me ever since. For me, it’s easy to see how something as chaotic as wildfire would work perfectly with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92.
As pretentious as this sounds, I just wanted use the footage in a way that spoke to me. The bulk of what I filmed will be used to update government training videos, websites, etc., so being allowed to create a short film of something I’ve been passionate about for 20 years was really meaningful.