California on Fire: Jeff Frost and the Making of Fire Chasers

KCET, August 31, 2017 ... re-chasers

Jeff Frost's heart was thundering. There was no way out.

The sky was filthy and glowing with an orange hue. The fire chief announced that the roads were blocked and no one was leaving. The Rocky Fire had them trapped. By instinct, Frost kept his video cameras rolling, filming almost continuously until the heat and the smoke forced him into his truck to wait out the danger and listen for the next instructions.  What he did not know at the time was that his film footage of the California wildfires, compiled for a project entitled California on Fire, would lead to the creation of one of the most harrowing and important environmental documentaries since An Inconvenient Truth. 

The Netflix series, Fire Chasers, explores how climate change, drought and the effects of California’s changing vegetation fueled the devastating 2016 California wildfires. Traversing the state, the series features firefighters from CalFire, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and women enrolled at the California Department of Corrections “Fire Camp”. Fire Chasers is a visceral experience, as viewers follow along with firefighters while in the air on CalFire helicopters, on the ground in the wilderness and around the table at fire stations across the state. The film also tracks two artists, Jeff Frost and his significant other, Andrea Daleas, as they film the California wildfires and the devastating aftermath.

Eventually guided out of the aforementioned Rocky Fire, Jeff Frost posted some of his footage on social media. By then, Frost was four years deep into his California on Fire project, but the shocking – yet strangely beautiful – footage caught the eye of people in the film industry.

“I posted the photos and time-lapse clips [of the Rocky Fire] to my Instagram (as I went along on my California On Fire art project) and it started to gain steam,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was approached by a director.”

Frost is an artist who works in a variety of mediums and as a filmmaker he is known as a master of the time-lapse technique. Using specialized motion-control equipment, he captures the surreal horror of California’s wildfires in a way that no one else has. One of his first experimentations with the medium involved a fire near the Palm Springs windmill farms.

“I wasn’t sure it would be effective,” he said, “[since] it’s an entirely impractical way to shoot a fast moving situation like a wildfire. That being said, this counterintuitive approach has led my work to have a much different feel and look.”

In Fire Chasers, Frost’s time-lapse films help convey the monstrous task firefighters are up against in fighting these shape-shifting, fast-moving fires; The landscape grows more and more consumed in the blazes, the skies grow darker and darker and the challenges pile up, as lives and homes are threatened. This surreal sense that time and space is suspended in Fire Chasers, driven by Frost’s time-lapse additions, creating an anxious urgency throughout the film. His visual narratives crackle and burn. 

When Frost began his California on Fire project (which was entirely self-funded through commissions, print sales and commercial work), he realized that in order to get directly into the action (and survive to tell the tale) he needed to train as a firefighter. He took a weeklong training course at the Arizona Wildfire Academy with other firefighters who would go on to work for CalFire and many other organizations and agencies.

“I did all the things a firefighter would do in this training," he said, "including digging fire lines and doing pushups when I screwed up. At first, I was the class weirdo from out of town.”

His fellow classmates were highly suspicious of this artsy Californian who worked in media. But as Frost showed them his work and described his love for the Golden State, he won them over.

“Eventually sideways glances were replaced with curiosity, interest, and support,” he said. “It was a pretty great experience.”

All the while, the brutal drought in California dragged on. One of the themes of Fire Chasers is how climate change is affecting both the number and intensity of California’s wildfires. In the film, experts describe a domino effect of catastrophic proportions: as the California wilderness dries up, trees with less water become stressed and lose their ability to fight off infestations of damaging insects, such as the bark beetle, leading to the trees’ death. Vegetation dries up as well (what firefighters call “fuel”) and the wilderness becomes a tinderbox, easily combustible from even the slightest spark, such as a car pulling off the road or from a flicked cigarette. Wildfire seasons are growing longer than many veteran firefighters have ever seen.

In fact, the role of climate change in California’s wildfires was the original motivation that drove Frost to start his California on Fire project.

“Concern [about] the environment and the rapidly increasing temperatures of Earth [is what motivated me],” he said. “I wanted to show an effect of this heat increase happening in real time, rather than in the distant, or not so distant, future.”

In addition to the environmental concerns posed in the film, Fire Chasers is also a moving tribute to firefighters, the men and women who risk their own lives to save the lives and properties of those in their communities. It is a profession in transition, as the longtime veteran firefighters retire and a new crop of firefighters needs to learn time-tested techniques in a changing environmental landscape.  Although the film is based in California, viewers are left feeling an unbounded sense of gratitude for firefighters’ superhuman bravery and dedication to public service, regardless of their geographic location. 

While filming active wildfires, Frost is a solo operation, since it is too dangerous to have a crew with him.  In the aftermath of the fires, Andrea joins him, collecting what he calls “artifacts” in the post-apocalyptic wreckage of the fire’s wake. 

“[She] was indispensible in speaking to people in very raw states of mind,” he said. “We approached them as they were literally sifting through the ashes of their lives. I owe a lot of thanks to Andrea for helping in this and to [local residents] for so graciously speaking with us and allowing us to collect melted and burned objects.”

When asked what he wanted viewers to come away with after watching the film, Frost was unequivocal.

“We have no choice but to be better stewards of the land.”