Santa Rosa Group documentary focuses on role of climate crisis in catastrophic wildfires

It started as a collection of stories, people talking about what they endured the night and early morning hours of October 8, 2017, when a series of firestorms tore through Sonoma County.

Listening for a Change, a decades-old non-profit organization dedicated to fostering understanding through public talks and listening sessions, has been asked to launch a project to hear the voices of people and families who had lost their homes and others who had suffered so much trauma.

The task was to listen, record and document what the people of Sonoma County 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 this as the type of project the band 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, have focused on “building connections and breaking down barriers,” she said. “It was about getting people to get along and come to acceptance rather than just tolerance, so they could understand each other.”

But Rosenfield was intrigued, so the band approached the Firestorm interviews with the same strategy they used with other topics: They listened.

They posted the results — 10 interviews, each 8 to 12 minutes long — at various locations across Sonoma County. And frankly, Rosenfield thought, that was it.

“That was really it. We weren’t going to do anything more,” she said. “We were happy with the results.”

But something was nagging her.

“I kept spinning in my head: this is a security issue, but it’s also a climate crisis issue,” she said. “People were still hesitant to use those words.”

So Listening for a Change decided to use the interviews they had had and expand their reach. They would talk to historians, climate experts and activists. They would make a feature documentary that would explore the links between the climate crisis and wildfires.

The film examines the similarity between the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 1964 Hanly Fire which eerily traveled the same footprint from the Napa County line westbound to Santa Rosa.

But above all, the two fires did not move at the same pace.

The Hanly Fire took days to sow its destruction. The Tubbs fire lasted for hours.

There was more fuel in the way of the Tubbs fire – we built houses on the ridge that became Fountaingrove, the same ridge that burned in 1964.

In 2017, the winds were exponentially stronger than five decades ago. And the land much drier.

“The board…we talked about it at length,” Rosenfield said. “We pivoted because that’s what we had to do. If we don’t have a safe world, all other issues are secondary.

But Sonoma County and its people remain at the heart of the film.

“I really wanted to mix not just the intellectual part, like climatologists, but the heart part, the emotional part,” she said. “I think more people are waking up now, but there’s no place where we tell people what to do. It’s ‘That’s what happened. That’s what this person did. What can you do now?'”

The final product, “Embers of Awakening, From Firestorms to Climate Healing” was screened at various locations and will be the centerpiece of the upcoming annual fundraiser for Listening for a Change on Friday, September 23.

There will be additional screenings at Pepperwood Preserve on October 8, the Sonoma County Museum on October 15, and the Windsor Regional Library on November 5.

One of the experts the team recruited was Claudia Luke, director of the Center for Environmental Inquiry at Sonoma State University.

Luke will receive the band’s 2022 Connie Codding Humanist Award at Friday’s fundraiser and screening.

“I think this is of great interest to many people trying to understand how climate is changing the United States and the world,” Luke said in an interview. “We have to change what we do.”

In the film, Luke gives direction on this front.

“I think that’s why this movie is exceptional,” she said. “It opens the door for people to take action and take next steps. It’s “Walk through this portal with us and let’s begin this process of change”.

In the film, families who have lost their homes talk about rebuilding in a new, fire-hardened way. The film also discusses the installation of solar panels, the transition to electric vehicles, the transformation of landscapes away from designs that require water.

And Luke, who praised the film for touching both the heart and the mind, said those looking to make an impact should also consider their stomachs.

“Really reduce your meat intake,” she said. “The amount of carbon we spend growing plants to feed livestock and then slaughtering and shipping that livestock? It is enormous. This is your biggest impact.

But Luke also talks about collaborative action. And she and Rosenfield refuse to give up hope for change.

“I feel like there’s a bit of heroism in there. Look, we happen to be the ones who are here right now, at the key moment. We’re at a crossroads,” Luke said. “It’s us who are here right now. There’s kind of like, ‘Oh, do I accept this 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 have hope,” she said. “I hope we’re scared and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

“It’s a shame it takes a tragedy, but damn it, the tragedy is here, so let’s work together now.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or [email protected] On Twitter @benefield.