On Nov. 4, more than 250 people packed the historic Sebastiani Theatre in downtown Sonoma, California, for the world premiere of “Waking Up to Wildfires,” a documentary funded by NIEHS through a grant to the University of California, Davis (UCD), and National Geographic.
The 52-minute film, created for the UCD Environmental Health Sciences Center by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Paige Bierma, tells the stories of those affected by the 2017 North Bay fires, which took 44 lives, burnt almost 9,000 structures, and scorched 245,000 acres.
Once considered to be the most destructive fire in California’s history, the 2017 fires have since been supplanted by the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed at least 85 people, with more still missing as of this writing.
“This is a new reality for us, even for Californians,” said UCD science and health writer Jennifer Biddle, who conceived the idea for the film and was its producer. “Wildfires have raged for thousands of years, but having them burn down whole towns, having the whole state blanketed in smoke from multiple fires, and not being able to even see across the road when you’re 200 miles away from the fires — we’ve never experienced that before,” she explained.
“That’s why we called the film “Waking up to Wildfires,” because we literally are waking up in the middle of the night to these disasters, and also coming to terms with this new reality,” Biddle added.
A film is born
Biddle contacted Bierma, whom she had known for many years, to see if she was interested in a project to capture this new reality through the experiences of survivors, firefighters, public health officials, community groups, and the scientists who are trying to track the health effects of urban wildfires.
Bierma was game, and together they pitched the idea to Biddle’s boss, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., director of the UCD center. Hertz-Picciotto loved the idea of doing a film, especially one involving an award-winning filmmaker.
“I was inspired by the celebration of the 50th anniversary of NIEHS, where they did the a festival of films that different NIEHS grant recipients made related to their community outreach work,” said Hertz-Picciotto, an NIEHS grantee. “I thought they were very exciting, and I remembered feeling how powerful some of those films were. I felt like this was a medium we could use more broadly.”
Hertz-Picciotto’s research is featured in the documentary, along with that of other scientists studying the aftermath of the North Bay fires.
According to the film, the synthetic chemicals released by the burned homes — from products like upholstery, cleaners, lead paints, gas pipelines — must be studied to fully understand the short- and long-term health impacts from these new urban and suburban wildfires. The toxic effects of that smoke may turn out to be far worse than everyday pollution, Hertz-Picciotto suggested.
Today, Hertz-Picciotto and her team continue to accumulate and analyze data from ash samples, air samples, and surveys, although they recently had to pause the door-to-door surveys because of the Camp Fire, which made the air too dangerous for the research assistants to breathe.
Although the film touches on the science of wildfire research, it spends most of its time recounting the harrowing tales of those who experienced their devastation firsthand.
To gather stories of survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, and other health effects, Biddle reached out to Facebook groups that connected hundreds of thousands of people struggling to recover from the fires. To her surprise, those groups became not only a great resource for the documentary, but also a recruitment tool for the health research studies that UCD was undertaking.
“As far as I can see, it has been an interesting and valuable way to do outreach, not just to let people know about the work, but also to actually get them involved in it,” said Biddle. “I think that is a unique, positive aspect of NIEHS’s core mission, this emphasis on community engagement, which our center also tries to follow.”
(Marla Broadfoot, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)