Tracking the experiences of a wildland firefighting crew, Wildland offers a personal look into a dangerous and provocative career. Led by coordinator Ed Floate and base manager Sean Hendrix, the documentary follows the newest Grayback Forestry team through selection, training, and the summer fire season.
The men at Grayback are a mysterious and captivating bunch of misfits. Many have served prison time or are on parole, and each member of the team has different motivations for choosing such a perilous job, but most are just looking for a second chance. One of the main subjects of the film, a young man named Aidan, is a particularly intriguing character.
Early in the film, he asks Floate if there are more hero stories than horror stories. “Fighting fire is just long hours of hard, boring work punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” the boss replies curtly. Floate’s response catches the young man off guard, revealing some unspoken motivations.
Aidan and his close friend Charlie left bible school together and set out across the country to Grayback headquarters in Oregon. The two live in a campsite in the woods and bathe in the river, neither seeming to care much for living a materialistic lifestyle. Aidan does have one item he’s fond of, however: a paperback version of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, a fitting read for his summer.
While some men on the crew have children, wives, and other jobs to balance, Aidan and Charlie have a Chris McCandless-esque energy about them. They are young and happy to be living a life in the wildlands but are ultimately alone, responsible only for themselves and their own roles on the crew. At one point, Aidan reminisces on what drew him to this lifestyle. He says matter of factly that he needed some “grit” in his life, something he felt was impossible in his comfortable life of privilege.
And grit is certainly plentiful in Wildland. The work is physically exhausting, trekking up and down mountain ridges for 12, sometimes 14 hours at a time. The crew spends the majority of the film training and then going into active fire zones to create firelines, trenches dug on the outskirts of the zone to stop the fire from spreading. It’s grueling work and involves handling the soil with bare hands to ensure they’ve dug deep enough but doesn’t involve contact with any fire. Aidan and Charlie grow restless as the summer stretches on until the crew finally have their first direct encounter with wildfire.
Bathed in a murky, yellow haze, a fire rages through the Monterey forests. The crew works tirelessly creating lines and hosing flames. Throughout, the camera stays in the thick of it all, allowing the audience to be immersed in the smoke and heat. Floate’s insight rings true for Aidan, Charlie, and the rest of the men; it’s long hard work with high stakes. The men never see a true victory against the fire but continue to steadily fight against it.
In Wildland, directors Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson seek to emphasize just how intense this job is, even if doesn’t turn out in the headline-making hero stories they might have desired deep down. It’s a thoughtful tribute to a likely underappreciated group. The crew at Grayback are looking for a second chance at life, desperate to remake their lives following prison stints or even just leaving a comfortable existence. Like the phoenix, they find it in the flames.