Santa Rosa wildfires spotlighted in new PBS documentary ’The West is Burning’

“The West is Burning” looks at how exclusion of fire and the build up of fuels has stoked the risk of catastrophic wildfires in an increasingly hotter and drier era in the west.|

“The West is Burning” on PBS

Click here for a schedule of upcoming airings of the film.

A new documentary that examines how decades of misguided forest management practices have contributed to dangerous wildfire conditions across the American West including Sonoma County, is debuting on PBS stations nationwide this month.

“The West is Burning” focuses in part on Santa Rosa and the deadly North Bay fires that burned parts of the city to the ground in 2017. It looks at how the history of preventing naturally occurring fire has led to the buildup of brush and more flammable landscapes, especially in an era made hotter and drier by climate change.

Featured in the documentary is Melanie Parker, deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, who witnessed the devastation of the 2017 inferno firsthand. She remembers standing outside her home in Santa Rosa and watching two neighboring houses become engulfed in flame.

“I was awakened by my 10 year-old son saying ’Fire!’ Everybody out!’” she said. “He had been awakened by seeing sparks, and then watched the hillside ignite.”

In the documentary, Parker shows how Regional Parks oversees controlled burns to clear long-accumulating underbrush. The technique is similar to the fires that indigenous people in the area used for thousands of years to maintain the landscape.

Parker wants viewers come a way with a better understanding of the different steps that must be taken to reverse the alarming trend of worsening fire seasons throughout the western U.S.

“I hope that people take away that it’s not either climate change or vegetation management, that it’s both-and,” she said. “To remind ourselves that land stewardship is something that humans have done and something we need to continue to do.”

Cody Sheehy, the filmmaker behind “The West is Burning,” has a master’s degree in ecology from Oregon State University. He produced the film in partnership with Landmark Stories, a science documentary team backed by the University of Arizona.

Sheehy said he chose to highlight Santa Rosa in part because it’s a populated area with a long history of both destructive wildfires and fire suppression, dating back to the 19th century.

“It’s really important for the people of Santa Rosa to understand that they live in an ecosystem that is visited by fire,” he said. “And the best way to protect the area is to try to return a normal balance of fire back into it.”

Former Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane is also featured in the film giving an emotional account of how the fires three-and-a-half years ago burned through Fountaingrove and Coffey Park in Santa Rosa.

Going forward, she said officials need to reconsider if parts of Sonoma County at highest fire risk should be zoned for new homes.

“Can people reasonably expect to be protected form wildfire if they chose to live on a rural mountain top?” she said. “We have to start designing things differently.”

Parker said another important piece is updating certain long-held ideas about conservation and environmentalism, namely that humans should play an active role in maintaining forestland.

“Simply locking the gate and throwing away the key is not true stewardship,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

“The West is Burning” on PBS

Click here for a schedule of upcoming airings of the film.

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