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‘Hotshot’ documentary shows front lines of wildfires

We are a fire city. Even though it happened a long time ago and there are no photographs of the Chicago Fire of 1871, it shadows and defines our history even as we grapple with contemporary fires. Images of the flames that have recently devastated parts of Maui flash before our eyes. And TV offers us a steady visual diet of wildfires raging across the country, mostly destroying parts of California.

That’s the shocking subject of a startling new documentary called “Hotshot,” which is both frightening and enlightening.

In an intense and intimate way, it takes viewers into the relatively unknown world of firefighters known as “hot ones.”

It is the work of director, writer, narrator and cinematographer Gabriel Mann. It took more than ten years to build.

I asked him “What is a hotshot?” I asked.

He paused for a moment before saying, “It is the most dangerous profession in the world.” When asked to elaborate, he continued: “Simply put, a quick shot is someone who extinguishes fires without using water.

“They’ll roll their eyes when I say this, but they’re like Navy SEALs; they go to the furthest reaches of fires to clear the land, and very few people get to see what they’re doing, the danger, the work involved.”

He entered this world through a woman named Justine Gude, the team boss of one of the talented teams in Southern California’s Angeles National Forest. They met through mutual friends and fell in love during the six-month hiatus from the flames that hot actors experience every year, roughly from November to May.

“He never wanted to talk about his job, he never wanted to talk about the fires,” she says. “But after we lived together for a while, we lived in a house in Santa Clarita, there was a fire nearby and we went there together. “I carried my camera.”

He got, in his words, “a front seat in what seemed like the end of the world.” I ran up this hill and started shooting. Something happens to people when they see a forest fire up close. It happened to me. There’s something primal that connects you to it. “Once you see it, you can’t look away.”

Thus, by becoming addicted, he was eventually able to gain the trust of Gude and his team. For the next six years, he followed them through their intense training for six months each year, escorting them through fire after fire.

“Many times I was terrified, I was sure I was going to die,” he says.

He never had any intention of making a movie. “I didn’t see myself as a documentarian,” he says. “But I knew I was allowed into this privileged position, this rare place where I could figure out what they were doing and try to catch it.”

After years of filming, he called Phil Donlon.

Born in Chicago and raised in Bridegeport, Donlon was a performer on local stages before becoming a film and TV actor, director and producer. Mann was the cinematographer of the 2017 film “High and Away” In what would be Donlon’s last film, he played a worn-out baseball player opposite respected character actor Geoffrey Lewis.

“That’s when we became friends,” Donlon says. “I knew what he was doing with the fires, but I didn’t fully understand the impact until I saw what he was shooting. It was incredibly exciting, and when he asked me if I could help shape this movie into a coherent story, I was honored and gave it my all.”

Donlon quickly learned of the fire. “We were facing some scary situations,” he says. “I was staying with Gabe and he would hear his scanner on fire. ‘Shall we put on our boots and go to this fire?’ he would say. “It’s 3.30 in the morning and we’re on our way.”

During the lockdown pandemic years, the duo (along with another producer, Sage Seb) shaped the bulk of the film into 90-minute length.

“This is the most important study I have ever been involved in,” Donlon says.

The images are striking throughout; giving us fire tornadoes, columns of smoke, and waves of fire covering the land. The camera moves across the charred and twisted ground of what was once suburbia, over gnarled limbs that were once living trees and animals. Some scenes are haunting but crucial to the storytelling. Here and there we see firefighters, the water flowing from their hoses barely able to stop the flames. We watch as various planes (tankers, helicopters) unsuccessfully dump water and retardant on the raging flames.

There’s an illuminating chapter that details how, as Mann notes, “wildfires have been a vital part of the ecosystem for 10,000 years, where they were managed by Native Americans who used fires to act as nature’s cleanup crew.” He also told me that Florida “is doing things right, proactively burning 2 million acres of forest every year, so this state doesn’t have the same problems we have in California.” This state needs to burn 4 million acres a year, what does it burn? Sixty-five hundred.”

You’ll learn a lot from this movie, and although you’ll see off-duty jokes from the hot crew members, you won’t hear from any of them. Even Gude, who is no longer involved with Mann after seven years but is the main protagonist of this film, does not speak on camera, but we see him at home (with his pet pig) and watch a heartwarmingly bold episode of his life. He rescues two dogs named Sparky and Smokey who were abandoned in a burning house.

“I filmed some interviews,” Mann says. “But we decided to honor the achievers. They don’t talk to the media. They don’t like the media that conveys distorted and ridiculous stories about the fires to the public. Their attitude that I admire is that they do their job without talking. Showing and not telling.”

He sees many notable mainstream and freelance media insiders as “fire pornographers.” Donlon and Mann say the same: “I’ve been at fires where other videographers were cheering on the fire, yelling, ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ so they could get more footage to sell.”

Hotshots are not considered firefighters. These are people called “forest technicians” employed by the Forest Service and other federal, state and county agencies, and as such they earn salaries roughly one-third of what firefighters earn. This seems incomprehensibly unfair.

Mann and Donlon agree. Making “Hotshot” turned them into advocates. “We financed this film ourselves to make sure people understand. We have been given a rare opportunity to be on the front lines of brave men and women fighting an important fight. I am humbled by their dedication,” Mann said.

“Congress will be making some financial decisions soon, and if they don’t raise the salaries of talented people, I’m afraid 60% will be forced to resign. And then what?”

“Hotshots” will be available to watch on streaming platforms starting October 1 www.hotshotmovie.com

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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