Benefield: Documentary from Santa Rosa group focuses on role of climate crisis in catastrophic wildfires
It began as a collection of stories, people speaking about what they endured the night and early morning hours of Oct. 8, 2017, when a series of firestorms ripped through Sonoma County.
Listening for a Change, a decades-old nonprofit dedicated to fostering understanding through public interviews and listening sessions, was asked to launch a project to hear the voices of people and families who had lost homes, and others who experienced so much trauma.
The task was to listen, record and document what Sonoma County residents saw that night, what they felt, what they were left with.
And later, how they would rebuild.
At first, Listening for a Change executive director Phyllis Rosenfield, didn’t see it as the type of project the group would normally tackle.
“It wasn’t something we had thought about doing,” she said. “It wasn’t on our radar.”
Their projects, over the years, had focused on “making connections and breaking down barriers,” she said. “It was having people hear one another and come to acceptance rather than simple tolerance, so they can understand each other.”
But Rosenfield was intrigued, so the group tackled the firestorm interviews with the same strategy they have used with other topics: They listened.
They posted the results — 10 interviews, each 8-12 minutes long — at various venues around Sonoma County. And frankly, Rosenfield thought, that was that.
“That was really it. We weren’t going to do anymore,” she said. “We were pleased with the results.”
But something was nagging at her.
“I kept turning over in my mind: It’s about safety, but it’s also about the climate crisis,” she said. “People were still hesitant to use those words.”
So Listening for a Change decided to use the interviews they had and broaden their focus. They would talk to historians, climate experts and activists. The would make a full-length documentary that would explore the links between the climate crisis and wildfires.
The film examines the similarity between the Tubbs Fire in 2017 and the Hanly Fire in 1964 which traveled in eerily the same footprint from the Napa County line heading west into Santa Rosa.
But crucially, the two fires did not move at the same pace.
The Hanly Fire took days to sow its destruction. The Tubbs Fire took hours.
There was more fuel in the path of the Tubbs Fire — we built homes on the ridge that became Fountaingrove, the same ridge that burned in 1964.
In 2017, the winds were exponentially stronger than five decades earlier. And the land vastly drier.
“The board … we have spoken about this at length,” Rosenfield said. “We pivoted because this is what we needed to be doing. If we don’t have a safe world, all the other issues are secondary.”
But Sonoma County and its people remain at the heart of the film.
“I really wanted to blend not just the intellectual part, like climate scientists, but the heart part, the emotional part,” she said. “I think more people are waking up now but there is no place where we are telling people what to do. It’s ‘This is what happened. This is what this person did. What can you do now?’”
The final product, “Embers of Awakening, From Firestorms to Climate Healing” has been screened at various locations and will be the centerpiece of the upcoming annual fundraiser for Listening for a Change on Friday, Sept. 23.
Luke will be awarded the group’s 2022 Connie Codding Humanist Award at Friday’s fundraiser and screening.
“I think it has broad interest for many people who are trying to understand how climate is changing the United States and the world,” Luke said in an interview. “We need to change what we are doing.”
In the film, Luke gives direction on that front.
“I think that is why this movie is exceptional,” she said. “It opens the door for people to take action and next steps. It’s ‘Walk through this portal with us and let’s start that process of making change.’”
In the film, families who have lost their homes speak of rebuilding in a new, fire-hardened way. The film also addresses installing solar panels, moving to electric vehicles, transforming landscapes away from designs that demand water.
And Luke, who lauded the film for hitting both the heart and the mind, said those looking to make an impact should also consider their stomachs.
“Really reduce your meat consumption,” she said. “The amount of carbon we spend growing plants to feed cattle and then slaughtering and shipping those cattle? It’s huge. It’s your biggest impact.”
But Luke also speaks to collaborative action. And she and Rosenfield refuse to give up hope for change.
“It feels to me there is a bit of heroism in it. Look, we happen to be the ones that are here right now, at the key juncture. We are at the crossroads,” Luke said. “We are the ones who are here at this point in time. There is a sort of, ‘Oh, do I accept that as being on my shoulders? Part of my life?’”
Hint: The answer is yes.
And so it is for Rosenfield.
“I’m not Pollyanna but I do have hope,” she said. “I do have hope that we are getting scared and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
“It’s too bad that it takes a tragedy, but darn it, the tragedy is here so let’s work together now.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)