You don’t see many firefighters in films. It is, of course, much easier to film someone in blue running after a mugger. So if you like watching fire fought, you’re out of luck. It’s all way too much trouble. Backdraft will just have to do.
But in the absence of cinema that gets to play with fire, the modern independent documentary can holster lightweight cameras and take us into the heart of all kinds of crazy. Case in point here: Hotshot. Two hours within spitting distance of the biggest wildfires in North America.
Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann’s documentary on Hotshots, or forestry technicians, is never far from fire for much of its running time. And the footage he captures is really out of this world. Volcanic skies and ruin everywhere. In one scene, a field of evenly spaced air conditioning units is lying in ash. They are all that’s left of a suburban street.
“Hotshots are experts in aboriginal land management…”
“Everything that can burn will burn.” is this film’s alarming prediction, delivered during an opening voiceover. At first, it sounds like melodrama, but when you hear it again as part of the epilogue, you understand it is a mantra for these Hotshots. Fuel burns. It’s just a question of when.
So what is a Forestry Technician, known colloquially as a Hotshot? Primarily, they engineer the fuel ladder, the progression it takes for a spark to burn grass, grass to burn small brush, and so on, until you get to the trees big enough to burn a redwood. Or a suburb. The hotshots are experts in aboriginal land management who remove rungs in the ladder that might fuel catastrophe. That makes them sound like yogurt weavers. They are not. They are element baiting, tobacco snorting matadors. Notionally, they are supposed to be land management wonks, but the reality is they have been co-opted away from their main role to fight fires that wouldn’t exist if they were just allowed to do their main job. Why? I don’t want to be cynical, but as this film has it, they are paid about a third as much as firefighters.
“It’s like summer camp. Just shittier,” one of them explains, ‘Hill Week’ is the normal deployment to a fire line. Fourteen days on, two off. During that time, they will sleep in the open and work all hours at an insane pace. The work is staggering. They have to move fast, yomping huge distances with heavy gear so they can attack the forest, usually against the clock. It’s no surprise they openly favor ex-military in their job adverts.
"…(a) vital first-hand account of work that needs to be appreciated"