Friday, September 9th, as the Cedar Creek fire was approaching southwestern Lane County creating a dark ominous sky in Eugene, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) hosted a screening of Elemental at the newly opened Arthouse. Organizers were quick to note the on-point timing of showing a documentary on wildfires, remarking that ash was literally falling in the theater’s parking lot right before the showing. The film details the destruction of the Paradise Fire and the Holiday Farm Fire and tells us how we can change the path from having wildfires subsuming the US.
Elemental was directed by National Geographic photographer Trip Jennings and he was joined by Crag Law co-founder Ralph Bloemers in writing the film. The film creators have been bringing the film across the West Coast. In Eugene it was shown at the Art House, an independent movie theater that belongs in the building where the Bijou existed before it went out of business.
An hour before the movie started, organizers hosted a reception that featured Oregon Wild, FUSEE, Northwest Youth Corps, and Cascadia Wildlands. A portion of ticket and beverage sales went to FUSEE. FUSEE executive director Timothy Ingalsbee, a former wildland firefighter, noted ecologist, and decades long forest defender in the region, was featured in the movie.
Northwest Youth Corps Executive Director Jeff Parker introduced the film by giving a trigger warning that the first 20 minutes would show detailed first-hand accounts of fire evacuees. The movie began with accounts of the Paradise fire of 2018, California’s deadliest fire. They showed testimony from both residents and firefighters. Next they showed accounts of the Holiday Farm Fire that took place in 2020 east of Eugene.
After the testimonial portion, the movie went into an educational section. A major thesis of the film was that fire can be beneficial to nature. Centuries ago, before Europeans colonized America, the indigenous people of this land would do prescribed burnings. These burnings would hold special cultural significance and they also knew that it helped cultivate the land, animal and plant species would thrive in these conditions. They also knew doing these occasional targeted prescribed burnings would prevent the large wildfires, like we see today happening.
Producers also talked to scientists at Oregon State University, that explained how even burned trees are a positive to the climate. Post-fire trees, if left along, will still trap a significan amount of carbon
Lastly they talked to Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety on how we can stop fire at the house level. A major point that was stressed is that home hardening, the act of using fire resistant materials in homes, is more important than creating defensible space. Homes that burn down in wildfires spark up more often from the embers of wildfires catching dry and flammable material than the flames themselves from wildfires. FUSEE recently posted an explainer on Instagram on home safety and making it more resilient to fires.
Parker closed out the showing of the movie with a brief panel featuring staff from the Ecostudies Institute, Eugene Springfield Fire Department, and NW Youth Corps. Ecostudies Institute talked about their exciting program to bring back prescribed burnings this year after wildfire season featuring an all indigenous crew.
Katie MacKendrick of Ecostudies Institute ended her statements on the panel by encouraging us to look at the hazy conditions outside and said, “Wildfire smoke is not what prescribed smoke looks like.”