Last week, Los Angeles experienced the La Tuna Fire, the largest for the city in over a half-century. California’s Governor Jerry Brown made an official call for a state of emergency. Fire crews worked tirelessly for the better part of the week to ensure that Burbank and the surrounding areas would not be engulfed by flames coming from over the mountain.
That’s why the footage in the latest Netflix docuseries “Fire Chasers” doesn’t exist merely as entertainment. These aren’t harrowing images of fire purely delivered to shock and awe. By going multiple steps beyond the usual, familiar news footage of flames overtaking a hillside, this series (executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) embeds within the fire crews themselves, using on-helmet cameras and dangerously intimate firefighting footage to drive home the danger that these men and women face when the flame path is uncertain.
It’s not just the fire itself that makes for an astounding shift in perspective. View-from-the-ground footage underneath a flame retardant drop and an onboard camera capturing images of a helicopter as it sucks up water from a nearby lake to dump on the flames each add a new level of immediacy to these threats that often seem enigmatic when discussed merely in the acreage they threaten. One early time-lapse tracking shot from the front of a fire response vehicle is a sped-up tour through a natural horror zone, coming within dangerous proximity to flames at the periphery of the frame.
Over the series’ nearly four hours, “Fire Chasers” doesn’t fall into the trap of merely showing firefighters combating heavy blazes. There’s careful consideration given here to the many different ways that employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) are working to ensure that the people of the state are protected from fires before they even start. As the state-level complement to the county fire departments that also get a fair share of screen time, these twin efforts shows that fire prevention doesn’t only consist of the legwork into combating wildfires. It also means ensuring that on a local, state, and federal level, fire protection is available to citizens wherever and whenever they need it, regardless of who they are and how much money they earn.
If there’s another theme that director Molly Mayock weaves through the series, it’s that fire is a great equalizer. Once these LA County firefighters hop off a helicopter and into a battleground of nature, they’re armed with the basic tools that men and women in their profession have been using for decades, even centuries. In the face of hundred-foot flames, these tremendous natural forces do not care who you are or what you have and how much property you own. Some firefights, as we see, carry more personal stakes for the people on the ground. But the effort is the same in all of them: no fire hose in the world is enough to combat an out-of-control wildfire — it takes a concerted, coordinated effort to save lives and the homes that guard them.
Aside from the men in the trademark yellow suits that “Fire Chasers” follows into battle, the series also works in multiple other threads of people caught in what this heat can bring about. For women at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Corona, some have the choice to work toward “Fire Camp,” a program that enlists inmates to be on-the-ground support in the state’s wildfire-battling efforts. We see and hear the personal stories of two women as they work to pass through the preliminary training process, giving a new meaning to rising from the ashes. One final throughline follows artists Jeff Frost and Andrea Dale, who work to repurpose fire wreckage, sculpting and preserving artifacts gathered from hollowed-out buildings, abandoned homes and the remnants of vehicles trapped in the fire line.
All of these men and women, and the survivors they meet along the way, struggle with the same consideration that “Fire Chasers” wrestles with: How do you reconcile the idea that the unpredictability of nature means that some die and some do not? The LA County fire crews aren’t always successful; through their protective uniforms, you can still see the concern in their eyes when things don’t go according to plan. Even the throbbing electronic score wavers between underlining the peril that comes with this pursuit and the magnifying the readily apparent trauma that the survivors face long after the blazes are controlled.
Though the series does make an effort to understand these people outside of their committed tasks, the further that these stories get away from understanding the impact these fires have on the people in their path, the less cohesive the overall series becomes. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see the aspirational members of “Fire Camp” return to a sense of normalcy during and after their time spent in jail. But the longer that these side stories play out, the more they feel like a separate series.
In looking at both cause and effect, disaster and aftermath, this environmentally minded documentary is an effective land-based companion to another exemplary Netflix doc from earlier this year, Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral.” While “Fire Chasers” doesn’t dig as deep into the public PR battle, it still makes a strong and compelling case for understanding what it is that’s creating these potential cataclysmic events.
Climate change isn’t the primary focus of the series, except when considering the number of times that local and state officials comment on the increasing severity of these fires. When year after year, the ferocity of the Soberanes and Blue Cut Fires bring with them new benchmarks in speed and movement, it’s not enough to wait around for people to react. “Fire Chasers” reinforces that lives are in the balance, and there’s only so much we can do once the problem is already on our literal and figurative doorstep.
“Fire Chasers” is now available on Netflix.