SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! In Bring Your Own Brigade, English documentarian Lucy Walker explores the increasing occurrence of raging wildfires destroying swaths of populous areas and leaving literal scorched earth and death in their wake. In California, on November 8, 2018, several fires rampaged across the state—the Camp Fire devastated the Northern California town of Paradise, and the Woolsey Fire tore through Malibu in the south.
Horrific video follows fleeing residents sitting in traffic bumper to bumper while tornadoes of fire swirl about, cinders blowing like hellish snow. We hear terrifying 911 calls from those who waited too late, screaming that they are burning while emergency dispatchers exhort them to try to run. But by then, they knew there was nowhere to go. Bulldozers scrape stalled vehicles off the road to clear the way for others. This is truly hell on earth. The only thing worse than the fire is the aftermath. Authorities make an effort to send different teams to towns so that the officials who warned and tried to evacuate the residents are not the same ones having to bag their charred bodies the next day.
The loss of life and property was nothing short of breathtaking in these fires. Still, returning to rebuild, the residents persistently reject proven approaches to reducing fire risk to property, seeing them as too prescriptive. This is true, even given the knowledge that future fires are inevitable, with the only question being when they will come again. These towns vote against taxes that would expand firefighting capabilities. They vote down an ordinance that would call for homes to be rebuilt to reasonable safety standards to withstand the periodic firestorms. Existing homes built correctly routinely survive the fires, and yet the votes fail.
The title of the film refers to private firefighting companies that contract with the mega-rich to protect their homes and lives. The most notable example came in 2018 when Kanye West and Kim Kardashian reportedly hired a team of private firefighters to save their $60-million mansion in Hidden Hills, incidentally protecting the rest of the neighborhood in the process. As a part of elite insurance coverage, some companies offer firefighting services to wealthy clients.
“…explores the increasing occurrences of raging wildfires destroying swaths of populous areas…”
Walker reveals the local choices that contribute to the magnitude of the damage and the role of climate change from human activities. A series of historical events and unscientific fire management practices are part of the complex set of causes of uncontrolled fires, not the least of which is the influence of wealthy corporate interests.
This documentary is an outstanding exposé of the hubris of people who move to these fire-prone areas, as well as those who return to rebuild without considering the consequences of their decision. Walker sits in the city council meeting for Paradise, absolutely stunned and shattered that the community will not make the small changes needed to improve fire safety. She explains that European culture cultivates a much stronger sense of common shared fate and accountability.
The movie condemns the willful ignorance that drives an ongoing imbalance with nature. There is a lingering arrogance that tracks directly back to the 19th-century belief in manifest destiny. Residents deny methods that would allow a smaller population to live in harmony with nature in California and give communities a fighting chance when the Santa Ana winds blow blazing death up the canyons.
Walker offers little in the way of hope that Californians will ever accept anything less than the fiction of complete dominance over the land and the forces of nature, despite repeated catastrophes. Bring Your Own Brigade is required viewing.
Bring Your Own Brigade screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…condemns the willful ignorance that drives an ongoing imbalance with nature."