‘Unacceptable Risk’: Climate change? These filmmakers asked Colorado wildland firefighters
The summer of 1988 seared fire into both of our careers as journalists. Ted was the director of photography at the Jackson Hole News when a complex of drought-driven fires overran Yellowstone National Park. For two months, Ted and an army of journalists brought images of our first national park in flames into every American’s home. Nobody on the ground or watching television had ever seen anything like this before.
Dan was working as a cub reporter at the Sonora Union Democrat in California’s Gold Country, down the road from Yosemite National Park. When a fire broke out in the nearby Stanislaus National Forest, the editor sent Dan out with an admonition: “Don’t come back unless you have pictures of flames.”
That same year, 1988, was a pivotal point for both the science and the politics of climate change. A NASA scientist named James Hansen testified before a Senate committee and told them something most scientists weren’t prepared to say out loud back then: “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming,” Dr. Hansen said. “It is already happening now.”
Neither Ted nor Dan made a career of covering fires, but Dr. Hansen has had a distinguished career as a prescient scientific maverick. Ted and Dan have spent their journalistic lives documenting humans’ increasingly problematic relationship with the natural world, writing and photographing for print publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian, Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, Audubon, and many others. In 2008, we formed The Story Group to respond to the changing media environment with multimedia approaches to storytelling.
More recently, Dan was tapped to be one of the editors of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the most comprehensive look ever at climate change causes and impacts in the United States. While Dan was completing his work with the assessment, The Story Group independently began filming stories that personify the science detailed in the report. They produced two series: One, Americans on the Front Lines of Climate Change, features people from around the country who are already experiencing the impacts of climate change in their daily lives. The second, Scientists on the Front Lines of Climate Change, features chapter authors from the National Climate Assessment speaking about the key messages from their chapters.
Those key messages invariably echoed one of the key findings of the entire report: “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.” It’s an eerie echo of Dr. Hansen’s words from 1988, but the warnings from the scientific community are being bolstered by the experiences of Americans around the country – and people around the world.
In our journalistic travels, we have witnessed how the climate change impacts in the U.S. are already affecting people’s lives and livelihoods: in farming and ranching communities in Iowa and Texas, struggling with weather extremes that are outside of anybody’s experience or family memory; in the livelihoods of commercial oyster growers in Washington state, who are dealing with the ocean’s continuing acidification; and in the lives of Colorado firefighters who are facing larger, more destructive fires and increasingly unpredictable fire behavior.
As these impacts spread, scientists are increasingly saying out loud what Dr. Hansen testified was happening more than a quarter century ago: the earth is warming, and human activities, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is driving that change. In turn, glaciers and Arctic ice are melting, sea levels are rising, and weather patterns are being disrupted around the globe, with profound implications for humanity.
This warming is hitting our Colorado home. Here, temperatures have climbed at a rate almost twice the national average since the 1970s. Among other things, this rise has exacerbated the drought conditions we’ve experienced this century, made our forests more susceptible to disease, and dried out forest fuels that have ignited with alarming regularity. We’ve seen it in the beetle kill forests of Grand County, in the disappearing streams in our favorite backcountry haunts, and most visibly, in the record-breaking fires that now have branded their names into all of our minds: Hayman, Fourmile, High Park, Waldo Canyon, and Black Forest.
When we decided to produce Unacceptable Risk, we knew that firefighters were not particularly inclined to get involved in political debates about whether cap and trade was better than a carbon tax, or if renewable energies could reliably compete with fossil fuels for our energy needs. What we hoped, however, was that these wildland firefighters could tell us what it was like to be, literally, on the front lines of climate change.
They could, indeed. When we sat down with the career firefighters who star in this film, they were forthright and articulate, not about any scientific studies they’d read about the human-causes of climate change, but about what they’d personally experienced during their careers. Firefighters hate being hailed as heroes, but we emerged from these interviews with a profound sense of awe, respect, and admiration for these people, who are increasingly being asked to be first responders to a slew of climate-related disasters, including hurricanes, floods, and, of course, wildfires.
When Ted started amassing footage for this film, he was awed by the unpredictable, unstoppable power of these new fires. Even his experiences in Yellowstone didn’t prepare him for seeing video of entire neighborhoods in flames, and firefighters retreating from subdivisions being swallowed by firestorms. In the dispatch tapes he could hear the fear and disbelief of commanders as they tried to keep their crews out of harm’s way — and how helpless they felt facing fire behavior they had never seen.
Any journalist hopes that their work will have an impact, and we certainly are no different. From the first fires we covered at the beginning of our careers until now, we’ve tried to communicate about the intricate relationship that humans have with the planet that sustains us. That relationship has become increasingly tenuous. We hope that with this film, we can add the voices of these firefighters – truly on the front lines of climate change – to the growing call to action for all of us to help alter the alarming course we’ve set. As the National Climate Assessment concludes, “there is still time to act to limit the amount of change and the extent of damaging impacts.”
*The film premieres Tuesday, February 24, in Boulder, at the Dairy Center for the Arts. There will be a town hall discussion with the filmmakers, firefighters, a climate scientist and a public policy expert after the screening. A reception will follow at the Dairy Center McMahon Gallery. The Story Group is based in Boulder. Reserve your ticket here. It will also screen Wednesday.
[Fire photo via Unacceptable Risk, the movie.]
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