Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 17th, 2021
Bring Your Own Brigade (Lucy Walker, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
As the world bursts ablaze, many of us look on in horror even as others shrug and say, “Oh, well. There’s nothing to be done.” Fortunately, there is very much to be done. Unfortunately, democracy is messy, and the human animal prefers the devil it knows to the great unknown. Science is ill-understood by those with no appetite for its complexities, and so behavioral adjustments are always slow in coming. With climate change, though, the future is now. Such is the reality depicted in Bring Your Own Brigade, the new documentary from Lucy Walker (Buena Vista Social Club: Adios), a portrait of two California communities, Paradise and Malibu, struggling to rebuild following two devastating 2018 forest fires. Covering a lot of the same material as did Ron Howard in his 2020 Rebuilding Paradise, Walker nonetheless gives her movie its own unique spin. It’s a tad long, and not always on point, but almost always extremely powerful.
Using similar (maybe some identical?) first-person smartphone footage to what Howard used, Walker plunges us into the inferno of the Camp Fire, a hellish maelstrom of endless flames that spread without mercy. Day is night as smoke chokes the sky, people rapidly engulfed by the blaze, many to perish in their homes and cars. There is less of that in Malibu, for whatever reason; was the inclination to film one’s own demise not so pronounced, further south? Regardless, we get plenty of the aftermath, both through on-site images of ruin and copious interviews. The bottom line: both conflagrations, just two out of four that happened on the same day, were devastating to life and property. And as we see now, and as we saw last year and will most likely often see in the years ahead, fire is here to stay.
Then again, fire has always been with us, and is not necessarily a bad thing. Walker brings in plenty of experts, academic, indigenous, both and otherwise, to present the historical case for how the pre-European cultures of the area used fire to clear combustible materials from the forests. Those forests were also not at all like what we see today, with old-growth trees more spread out, the one from the other, than what came after the advent of logging. Just over the hill from Paradise lies a tree plantation owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. In 2008, that plantation, of very closely spaced young trees, went up like matchsticks in a previous fire; in 2018, much the same. Now the company is taking steps to change its policies, but it took more than one disaster to make it so. We also learn that though the native sequoia is, as Kristen Shive of Save the Redwoods terms it, “the quintessential fire-adapted species,” with its thick bark and high branches, it is finally losing the evolutionary battle as the blazes increase in heat and frequency. Act now before we lose the ability to halt the destruction.
Perhaps more instructive are the lessons we learn spending time with the survivors of both fires profiled here. Walker introduces us to a colorful cast of characters in Paradise that include Brad Weldon, a man whose own house was spared (by angels and/or his dead wife’s spirit, he likes to think). Now he generously has opened his land and spare rooms to those in need. We never hear too much about his own politics (Paradise is a conservative town), but most of his fellow townspeople feel like nothing should change. When presented with a list of options of what to do to mitigate damage and loss of life the next time there is a fire (an inevitable fact), they reject all of them, including the least restrictive one of keeping five feet between plant growth and domicile. Even the mayor votes against the proposals. That insistence on personal freedom at all costs stuns Walker, English by birth. Welcome to America, home of the brave.
It’s not all that much better in the more liberal and wealthier Malibu, where the Woolsey Fire struck. Residents point fingers at the fire chief for not sending firefighters to every home, even though funding to such services has routinely been cut (as outlined in detail by Montecito Fire Department’s Maeve Juarez). Plus, when everything is on fire, where do you send your trucks first? Some residents, such as those named Kardashian, can fund their own private brigade (whence the movie’s title), but that only helps them. Walker also touches on the resultant PTSD and depression that many (non-private) firefighters now face, especially when it’s time to clear out the rubble and dispose of the corpses that once were friends. The system is not sustainable, whether you’re a tree or a person.
But there is hope, Walker insists (just like Howard did), as she ends with a discussion of all the ways we can fix the problem. Unfortunately, after almost two hours of seeing her subjects suffer and then do very little to adapt – though meeting Weldon and his family is a joy – it’s hard to trust in her attempts at optimism. Still, one can dream, even if naïvely. I’ll go with the titular promise, however: the rich will look out for their own interests and fiddle while the rest of us burn. Nice knowing you, Planet Earth.