A Elemental Approach to Wildfire with Trip Jennings – AroundtheO | Ad On Picture

Trip Jennings began learning about the complexities of wildfires twenty years ago when he was a student at the University of Oregon.

A native of Virginia, he has been making films and videos, mostly about whitewater kayaking, his passion since high school. Two friends from the School of Journalism and Communication, Kyle Dickman and Becky Kennedy, approached him for help with a project.

The project included the 2002 Biscuit Fire, a conflagration in southern Oregon and northern California that burned nearly 500,000 acres. The fire and efforts to conduct salvage protocols afterward were in the news.

“They said, ‘For this project we want to do a film, instead of writing an article, would you like to collaborate?'” says Jennings, BA ’06 (Spanish). “I thought, ‘Totally.'”

The project, for which Jennings received an independent student loan, was his first exposure to forest and wildfire policy in the West, but it would not be the last.

Two decades later, Jennings has called a new movie about wildfires Elementary, which premiered in Portland in July and is now showing at festivals including the Mill Valley Film Festival, a long-standing Bay Area event highlighting independent and international films. The film ran for a week in September at the Art House Theater in Eugene.

Jennings and his collaborators spent nearly five years on the film, visiting burnt landscapes and wildfire-ravaged communities.

“I’ve visited scientists, investigators and firefighters,” he says, “and they kept telling me that we can have healthy forests and safe communities and that we can prepare for and adapt to fires.”

Jennings, a 40-year-old Portland resident, hopes the film will help change the way we talk about wildfires nationwide.

He directed and co-wrote the film and served as cinematographer. Among his collaborators was Sara Quinn, BA ’11 (Clark Honors College, Anthropology), who served as producer and editor. Jennings and Quinn have known each other since college when they were both residents of the Lorax student housing cooperative on Alder Street. They have been working together since 2014.

After college, Jennings continued to make collaborating films National Geographicwho tells stories of ecosystems around the world combined with his love of whitewater kayaking.

He returned to fire in 2017 when the Eagle Creek Fire raged through the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, burning 50,000 acres over three months.

“That was a real game changer in Oregon, especially for the people of Portland,” says Jennings. When ash rained down on the city, talk of climate change was no longer an abstract concept, he says.

“This fire was clearly in the range of what was very normal for the canyon, but we hadn’t seen a fire like this in almost a hundred years,” he says. “That was a little wake-up call”

When Jennings began work on his new film, he figured the story would be that so many of these landscapes would need to be burned, and more prescribed burns would need to be done to lessen their wildness.

What changed his mind about wildfire was a conversation he had with a scientist about the appropriate role for prescribed fire. The scientist told him that prescribed burns play their part, but that anything done to treat the forest or fuel further than 30 meters from a house has little to no impact on whether the house will burn in a wildfire.

Jennings’ insight was that it’s not about the forests, meadows or chapparal that are burning, it’s “the problem is that houses are burning and people, firefighters and local residents are dying in these fires,” he says. “So the solution has to come from home, and that’s what the science says.”

Firefighters are extremely effective at controlling wildfires, but the 2 percent of fires that cannot be controlled cause widespread damage and loss of life. The 2018 campfire was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, killing 86 people and destroying 18,000 buildings. In 2020, Labor Day fires, including the Holiday Farm Fire along the McKenzie River corridor, killed 11 people and destroyed thousands of homes in Oregon, effectively devastating the communities of Blue River, Phoenix, Gates, and Detroit.

“What we need to do is think about the values ​​that matter most to us,” he says, “and those are homes, communities and people.”

Some relatively simple repairs to homes in fire zones can help structures survive wildfires — like sealing attic openings with mesh screens to keep embers out and installing hardscapes next to homes instead of gardens. Some of the more expensive repairs include replacing single-pane windows with toughened triple-pane glass, which can withstand the raging winds and windblown debris that wildfires can throw at them.

It’s not a wall of fire moving through a community and burning down houses, it’s embers blowing into a house and setting it on fire.

Says Jennings, “You must protect your house from that one ember.”

Elementary is “not a doom-and-gloom documentary,” according to Jennings, despite harrowing scenes of people fleeing the flames in Paradise, California, in 2018.

“This is a story that has a solution to a problem. We have the technology and the capability to protect our homes and communities from wildfires,” he says. “We just have to have the will to do it.”

By Tim Christie, University Communications

Photo by Sara Quinn, Balanced Media

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