Filmmaker Matthew Irving began his career fighting wild land fires in 2003, so in many ways, his latest film project felt like a return home. The Wild Land, a short documentary made in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, follows the Colorado Craig Interagency Hotshot Crew as it battles wildfires in California and Montana during the 2021 season. It was a “dream come true” to combine his two loves of wildfire and filmmaking, Irving says.
Wildfires are burning hotter and stronger than they used to, in large part due to severe drought caused by climate change, as well as a history of fire suppression tactics that have let wild land fuel build up. Hotshot crews use a variety of tactics to fight these fires, as shown in the film. One technique requires crews to build their own line of fire (away from the head of the blaze), with the goal of sending it back toward the wildfire and burning up all the fuel in its path.
While a big part of the film shows the crew hiking through the backcountry and fighting the fires, Irving wanted to focus on the important relationship between the crew and the crew boss, one that requires trust and respect when hotshots are putting their lives on the line. The Colorado Craig Interagency Hotshot Crew, led by Logan Blankenship, is a close-knit group and even holds a small birthday celebration for a team member at the end of a long night. Blankenship, Irving says, is the best crew boss he’s ever seen or worked with.
The working conditions are a big part of retaining career firefighters. Previously, it was common for hotshots to work 36-hour shifts, which led to burnout among crews. “Hopefully this film shows other firefighters that it doesn’t have to be that way,” Irving says. “It’s okay for a crew boss to care about their crew, to look after them, and make sure they’re staying healthy.”