Second Chances in the Flames
Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson’s documentary, ”Wildland” shows us the harsh realities of wildland as it tracks the experiences of a wildland firefighting crew. We get a personal look into a dangerous and provocative career. The men are led by coordinator Ed Floate and base manager Sean Hendrix and they are to become the newest Grayback Forestry team through selection, training, and the summer fire season.
The men at Grayback are a mysterious and captivating bunch of misfits. Many have served time in prison or are on parole, and each member of the team has different motivations for choosing such a risky job. Most are just looking for a second chance. Aidan, is a particularly intriguing character. Early on in the film, he asks Floate if there are more hero stories than horror stories. “Fighting fire is just long hours of hard, boring work punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” the boss replies curtly. Floate’s response catches the young man off guard, revealing some unspoken motivations.
Aidan and his close friend Charlie left their studies and bible school together and set out across the country to Grayback headquarters in Oregon. The two live in a campsite in the woods and bathe in the river and they seem to care to live a non-materialistic lifestyle. Aidan does have one item he’s fond of, however: a paperback version of Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”.
Some of the men on the crew have children, wives, and other jobs while Aidan and Charlie have a great deal of energy about them. They are young and happy to be living in the wildlands but they are ultimately alone, responsible only for themselves and their own roles on the crew. At one point, Aidan reminisces on what drew him to this lifestyle. He says that he needed some “grit” in his life, something he felt it was impossible to have this in his comfortable life of privilege.
Aidan certainly gets what he hopes for as there is a lot of grit with this job. The work is physically exhausting. The men go up and down mountain ridges for 12, sometimes 14 hours at a time. The crew spends the majority of the film training and then going into active fire zones to create firelines and dig trenches on the outskirts of the zone to stop the fire from spreading. It’s grueling work and it also involves handling the soil with bare hands to ensure they’ve dug deep enough. That does not yet include contact with fire. Aidan and Charlie grow restless as the summer stretches on until they and the others finally have their first direct encounter with wildfire.
The film is shot in a murky, yellow haze as a fire rages through the Monterey forests. The crew works tirelessly creating lines and hosing flames. Throughout, the camera stays in the thick of it all, allowing the audience to be immersed in the smoke and heat. We see just how much Floate’s insight rings true for Aidan, Charlie, and the rest of the men— the work is long and hard work with high stakes. The men never see a true victory against the fire but continue to steadily fight against it.
Directors Jablonski and Hudson try to emphasize just how intense this job is, even if doesn’t appear in the headline-making hero stories the men might have desired. This is a thoughtful tribute to an underappreciated group. The men at Grayback are looking for a second chance at life and are desperate to remake their lives and hope that like the phoenix, they will find it in the flames.