Documentary “Element” Features OSU Work, Begins Darkside Run

A new documentary, “Elemental: Redefining our Relationship with Wildfire,” features two Oregon State University scientists, indigenous fire practitioners and top experts in home and community safety. The 78-minute film features the work of scientists including Chris Dunn and Bev Law of the OSU College of Forestry and seeks to prompt discussion on the most effective way to keep communities safe from fire.   

The film continues its schedule of Oregon showings with a week-long run at the Darkside Cinema in Corvallis starting on October 28th. Advance tickets available through the Darkside Cinema website  

The film has been selected for 22 film festivals so far and it has premiered to sold out audience in Portland, Eugene, Salem, Ashland, Florence, McKenzie River, Bandon, Coos Bay, Corbett, Bellingham, and Grants Pass.   

“Elemental,” directed by Trip Jennings and narrated by actor David Oyelowo, opens with footage and stories from the 2018 Camp Fire, which nearly destroyed the town of Paradise, California, before taking a look at the 2020 Labor Day fires that burned through much of western Oregon. The film includes interviews with top researchers whose focus is “hardening” homes and properties against fire, including experts from the Missoula Fire Lab and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.   

Dr. Christopher Dunn’s research involves large fire management and wildfire risk science. He also studies postfire landscapes and ecosystem resilience in the wake of fires, and his areas of expertise include fire ecology, wildfire management, and analytics and decision-making as they pertain to wildfire.  

“The film highlights the shared responsibility we all have,” Dunn said. “Basically, don’t rely on the federal government to save your home. They can’t. They can help, but they don’t own that problem. The changing environment requires us to change our expectations of the world around us.”  

Dr. Law is a professor emeritus of global change biology and terrestrial systems and an expert in the role of forests in climate change mitigation, and in carbon emissions from fires, thinning and bioenergy. She is part of global scientific consortium known as FLUXNET that has established more than 1,000 research sites to measure the exchange of carbon dioxide between forests and the atmosphere.  

“We’ve found that mature and older forests are the carbon sequestration workhorses,” Law said. “They take up more carbon annually and they have a lot more storage in the wood. Young forests are a net source of carbon to the atmosphere for their first 20 years.”  

Another OSU scientist, Lisa Ellsworth, served as an adviser on the film project. Ellsworth, a range ecologist in the College of Agricultural Sciences, studies the long-term consequences of fire in forests and the sagebrush country of central and eastern Oregon.   

The film features the work of the northern California’s Yurok Tribe, who for centuries prior to European settlement used cultural burning to promote forest health and to stimulate habitat for game and provide food sources. The film highlights how the tribe is now using fire again to keep their communities safe from future fires.   

“Fire has been a part of the natural landscape of North America for millennia and it will continue to be so into the future,” said Ralph Bloemers, the film’s executive producer. “But the loss of homes and communities does not have to become normal – there are solutions that everyone can start to do right now to prevent the losses. The key is working on the home itself and outward from it.”  

“Elemental” cites research showing that the odds of a thinned or logged parcel of forest encountering a fire before the trees grow back are less than 1%, and that attempting to cut vegetation more than 100 feet from a home to protect the home is not effective.   

“The idea that we can fireproof this huge landscape of flammable material is simply an impossible task,” said Tania Schoennagel, a landscape ecologist at the University of Colorado. “It’s like trying to scoop water out of the ocean to make it less wet. These areas are so vast in the West that there’s no way we can remove enough trees to make them less flammable.”  

The opening screening on October 28th in Corvallis will be followed by a question and answer session featuring the filmmakers as well as Dunn and OSU’s Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. 

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