Fire Chasers premieres Sept. 8 on Netflix.
The greatest surprise is the beauty. The gripping new Netflix documentary series Fire Chasers opens with visions of orange-and-black hell, of ash and apocalypse, of California homes and trees and horizons ablaze, of the sky itself now some jack-o’-lantern’s smile. The fire brightens the night but the smoke shrouds both in new darkness. The flames dance, reflected against the polish of a fire truck. Firefighters point their hoses and holler at each other, but it’s no slight against them that, in these first moments, they seem helplessly overmatched. Rather than fighting any one specific conflagration, they seem to be facing fire itself, the Platonic ideal of it, the purely destructive element that might one day consume us all. The rest of the series, which runs as four hourlong episodes, confirms that this is just what fighting fires always is like — the effort to manage and then extinguish a force that would, if possible, rage until there’s nothing left to burn.
Fire Chasers continually puts us close to that confrontation. We witness men and women, sheathed in Kevlar, battling a California wildfire season that runs longer and hotter every year. On hillsides on 100-degree days, as the fires advance, they hack with garden tools at scrub, agave and cactus, at the dry chaparral that’s creeping farther north as the world grows hotter. We learn their techniques from footage of their training: The plan often is to rob the fire of fuel, to create a containment line it can’t vault past. A man tells us this is how the cavemen probably fought blazes; a woman, one of many inmates enlisted in a prisoner firefighter program, enthuses about the chainsaw she’s learned to master, daydreaming about one day, when she’s free, walking into a Home Depot and dazzling the men there with her knowledge. “I just feel like a superhero,” she says.
Sometimes, as the crews rake and hoe, a Black Hawk helicopter will pass overhead and release a gout of water, often right onto the flames. The filmmakers’ cameras are attentive to every fascinating aspect of this: the view from the chopper, the cascade seen from the ground, the firefighters’ curses and cheers, the steam that hisses up around them.
This series is admirably dedicated to showing us what we have not seen before. Some of the firefighters have cameras on their helmets. Extended sequences in the second and fourth episodes reveal dramatic standoffs between firefighters and blazes, and it seems as if they might not be able to contain these fires — the advance of the flames made me gasp and wince.
And then there’s the beauty, most searingly captured by artist-photographer Jeff Frost, who documents California’s wildfires in overwhelming time-lapse photography. I use that adjective advisedly: Frost reduces cataclysmic nights to fluid seconds of footage, sometimes of flames licking red skies choked with black smoke, sometimes of the hills smoldering as the stars wheel overhead. Early on, his camera zips down an unpaved mountain road, the ash smoldering on both sides. We meet Frost during the film, traveling the state with artist Andrea Dale, searching for ways to communicate to the rest of us the enormity of California’s fire problem. They collect the melted detritus of homes and cars that the flames have claimed; one weighty solid puddle of metal, we learn, was once a pontoon.
Between their visions of conflagration, the filmmakers capably track the stories of Cal Fire and Los Angeles County Fire trainees and veterans. (Molly Mayock directed or co-directed each episode.) At the women’s prison camp in Corona, we glimpse the firefighters’ bonding and training (“Always know what your fire is doing!”; “This is where you go deep down inside and say, ‘I want to change my life!’”). Some of the women tell the cameras how they came to be imprisoned, and then about how risking their lives in that heat beats lockup. If you get misty during scenes of these volunteers calling home or congratulating one another’s teamwork or flaunting their firefighter trainee certificates — well, just say there’s smoke in your eyes.
The pros, meanwhile, at their own camp, also train hard, but have the freedom to dick around. For all their courage, their most memorable scene is two dudes challenging each other to swallow what is billed as the world’s hottest hot sauce. The four-hour running time allows for daft asides like this, but also for reveries, suspense and helpful informative passages thumbnailing the causes of these increasingly frequent blazes: drained reservoirs, dry vegetation, drought. “At least 2017 has been wetter in California,” you might say to yourself before a fire expert on screen points out the terrifying truth: More rainfall means more scrub, which means more fuel the next time it gets hot.