In “Bring Your Own Brigade,” Lucy Walker acts as a compassionate and dogged guide into the inferno. A transplant to the American West — California, to be more precise — from verdant Britain, the documentary filmmaker cast herself as a concerned and rightly flummoxed outsider while investigating increasingly extended and catastrophic wildfire seasons. “Why is the hillside on fire?” she recalls thinking as she drove along a Los Angeles freeway. Her film is brimming with questions.
With a cast composed of wildfire survivors, firefighters, scientists, and indigenous thinkers, “Bring Your Own Brigade” is intelligent, harrowing, and poignant. Walker’s willingness to have her certainties upended makes the documentary a welcome addition to the climate-change genre even as it challenges assumptions about wildfires and the warming of the planet.
Walker began her research four years ago, compelled to answer for herself why fires have become more ferocious and more deadly. She was pretty sure of what the answer would be, she tells us. Later, she’ll confess otherwise. Walker signed on to embed with different firefighting outfits, including Malibu’s fire department and then Battalion Chief Maeve Juarez. Her timing was fortuitous, if heartbreaking. The Woolsey fire took hold on Nov. 8, 2018, swallowing up parts of Ventura County and Malibu. On that same day, nearly 500 miles away, the largest fire in California history, the Camp Fire, swept down on the town of Paradise. “Most of the people I knew lost everything. Everything,” says a survivor. Eight-five people died in the Camp Fire. Three perished in the Woolsey fire. The towns’ similar fates yet dramatic economic differences add to the doc’s keen complexity.
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Like Ron Howard’s film “Paradise,” this film shows images of what Paradise citizens faced as swirling embers blew down from the origin point near Camp Creek Road, lighting scrub, trees, rooftops and cars. The fire was voracious; a firefighter estimates that it covered the length of 1.3 football fields a minute. The firsthand accounts create a peculiar dissonance: We fear for the speakers’ safety even though their interviews are proof of survival.
Of the many survivors, Walker clearly fell for Paradise resident Brad Weldon — and his mom. Who wouldn’t? “I thought they had left me,” the octogenarian says from a hospital bed set up in the living room. She’s blind and luminous in a “ready for that other paradise” kind of way. Brad takes care of her, and after the fire leaves so many without a home, he makes room for more in theirs, which miraculously survived. Mother and son could easily have commanded a documentary all their own. Their outsized role here is a testament to their spirit but also evidence of the director’s interest in characters and character. Her skills are humane and investigative.
While archival and collected footage is expertly employed, cinematographers Battiste Fenwick, Carmen Delaney and Grant Smith bring forth elegiac details: a weight bar arched by heat, a playground basketball rim twisted like a pretzel, an ash-covered deer’s corpse in a sucked-dry creek bed. Brad Weldon’s sister lost her home but says the dutiful, but also the honest, thing when she tells Walker, “I know it’s just stuff, but it’s my stuff.” Sobs follow. Loss abounds but it’s not the only thing that makes “Bring Your Own Brigade” powerful.
By honoring a number of voices, Walker wrestles not only with the challenges of wildfires but also with the beauty and hard-to-iron-out wrinkles of human beings. We love our first responders but don’t want to pay for them and don’t often take seriously the emotional wreckage that befalls them. The suicide numbers are rattling. We love our small towns but don’t necessarily want to take the bare-minimum steps that could save both our homes. If those failings sound familiar, there is a moment when Walker deftly deploys the analogy of embers and droplets, wildfires and pandemic.
And because this is the crucible in which America find itself, the documentary addresses the murderous past and arrogant disregard Europeans arriving in the West had for the fire-suppression practices and insights of the land’s indigenous people.
For the better part of “Bring Your Own Brigade,” Walker holds off on introducing climate change interviewees (a number of them are familiar go-tos). If you’re hoping for one easy — albeit daunting — cause to blame, you’ll be thwarted. Climate change is an accelerant, to be sure. But Walker lands convincingly on many causes: the exploitative practices of the lumber industry, including behemoth Sierra Pacific Industries which operates near where the Camp Fire started; the ongoing sidling of development on wildlands; the tenacious refusal to pay for community services. Even though it may not always feel like it, “Bring Your Own Brigade” finds in that shared responsibility opportunities to change course.