Lake County Screening of Wildfire Doc 'Wilder than Wild' Gets Community Talking

4 min
A still from the documentary 'Wilder than Wild' by Bay Area filmmakers Kevin White and Stephen Most.  (Mike McMillan)

Magdalena Valderrama was in the Seattle area visiting family in September 2015 when the Valley Fire broke out near her house in Lake County.

"We're out in the middle of San Juan Islands," she says. "There wasn't anything we could do."

A week after she returned to California, she found out she’d lost her home.

Valderrama is the co-founder and program director at the Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association, a nonprofit aimed at helping people in Lake County and beyond rebuild and protect their homes and neighborhoods. Since she started the group, she's been part of a community-based struggle to get Lake County back on its feet.

A big aspect of that is bringing her neighbors into the same room for difficult conversations that might just prevent the next big wildfire.

Along with several partners, Valderrama organized a recent movie screening in a Lake County community theater that got people talking.

The eye-opening documentary, "Wilder than Wild," focuses not only on preventative measures, but on the idea that because there's no way to completely stop wildfires from occurring, fire-prone communities have to learn to live with them and minimize their effects. Under this category comes things like a good emergency alert system and making sure people have an emergency bag ready should they be ordered to evacuate. According to filmmaker Kevin White, more than 200 communities across the western United States and overseas have organized screenings of the film since it was released in March 2018.

"I believe communities come together and they do the hard work about consensus building and thinking about, 'alright, what’s it going to take to make our communities safer?' If they do that work, I think there’s a much higher chance of success," said White, who is based in San Francisco. "If we're going to wait on Sacramento or Washington to do that work, it's not going to end well."

'Wilder than Wild' filmmaker Kevin White.
'Wilder than Wild' filmmaker Kevin White. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Since the Valley Fire, Lake County has been hit by multiple wildfires. They include last year’s epic Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex, the largest wildfire in California history. Valderrama says local residents and organizations have to take the lead in the fire recovery effort.

"There is so much urgency to make sure that we don't develop complacency, because that's our enemy,"  Valderrama said.

The "Wilder than Wild" event attracted a good turnout, including local government officials, representatives from Native American tribes, firefighters and nonprofit workers, among others. Around 250 people  from all over Lake County attended the event.

Around 250 Lake County residents attended the 'Wilder than Wild' film screening and conversation at Lakeport's Soper Reese Community Theatre on June 14, 2019.
Around 250 Lake County residents attended the 'Wilder than Wild' film screening and conversation at Lakeport's Soper Reese Community Theatre on June 14, 2019. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Valderrama says she decided to screen "Wilder than Wild" because the film features footage the filmmakers captured of the Valley Fire, and because it presents information about how people can learn to live with wildfires, rather than only work toward the unrealistic goal of preventing them entirely.

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One section of "Wilder than Wild," for instance, deals with the Native American tradition of "cultural burns," in which Native American tribes kept wildfires at bay by undertaking regular prescribed burns on their lands. The practice continued for thousands of years until the forestry service put an end to it nearly a hundred years ago.

Cultural burns are now making a comeback in some places.

"The film talks about a cultural landscape, and that's what we are really trying to do in Lake County," said Valderrama. "It's not just about getting people to harden their homes, but also to think in terms of living with wildfire."

Valderrama said there is a lack of knowledge about prescribed burns in Lake County.

"What we're finding is that a lot of firefighters who come are trained in cities. They're a little reluctant to engage in prescribed fire even though prescribed fire is recognized as a tool."

Magdalena Valderrama (pictured left) organized the 'Wilder than Wild' screening in Lakeport alongside partners like Cindy Leonard (pictured right).
Magdalena Valderrama (left) organized the 'Wilder than Wild' screening in Lakeport alongside partners like Cindy Leonard (right). (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

But she says residents are now starting to open up to hearing more about prescribed burns as a potential method for controlling wildfires.

Another longstanding problem is getting part-time and absentee homeowners to rid their properties of potentially hazardous debris like piles of wood, fallen leaves and long grass.

"Often they're seasonal residents, or people who may have inherited properties, and may not be aware of what's going on," Valderrama said.

At the post-screening Q&A, Clear Lake resident Robert Boccabella talked about recently witnessing someone mowing a lawn in windy, 90-degree weather. That’s a big no-no in fire-prone areas. Boccabella says he wasn’t sure what to do.

"I didn't know who to call. I was intimidated about stopping somebody," Boccabella said. "How do we handle people who are not thinking?"

Fire officials present at the event advised people in that situation to call the local fire department or 911.

Panelists with expertise in fire recovery at the 'Wilder than Wild' screening answer questions form the audience.
Panelists with expertise in fire recovery at the 'Wilder than Wild' screening answer questions from the audience. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Hidden Valley Lake resident Carolyn Graham shared a concern about homeowners installing generators.

"What can we do to make sure that people, if they're going to get a generator, that they know how to set it up and operate it in a safe manner?" Graham asked.

Lake County Fire Marshall Mary Jane Montana answered that residents should seek help from their local building and fire departments instead of relying on inexpert advice.

"Don't listen to somebody that tells you to get a double-male plug and plug it into your dryer outlet," she said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

Valderrama said getting people to talk to each other is key, even though the county is made up of scattered hamlets and unincorporated towns that pride themselves on self-sufficiency.

"Instead of being in all these little silos, it's time for us to kind of come out of our hidey holes and start meeting each other," Valderrama said.

The community involvement is starting to pay off. Lake County supervisors recently responded to longstanding frustrations among residents by passing an ordinance requiring property owners to clear hazardous vegetation from their lots, or face heavy fines and even jail time.

More community events are in the works.

Read KQED film critic Michael Fox's review of "Wilder than Wild" here

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