Before the great fire, there was the big wind, howling at sixty miles an hour through the October night. Residents up and down the Valley tossed and turned as it raged, sleeping in fits and starts until light breached the horizon. But that light was a peculiar shade when it came, tinged with the smoke of thousands of burned homes. Sonoma woke up to wildfires, and the town tipped on its axis.
Emmy award-winning filmmaker Paige Bierma has captured the calamity in a short film, and it’s making its world premiere at the Sebastiani Theatre Nov. 4. “Waking Up to Wildfires” tells the story of Sonoma last October, when disaster seemed to be at every turn.
“It was the most apocalyptic thing I’d ever seen. Everything was incinerated,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gino Degraffenried says in the film. “Something’s definitely changing. Never before in Sonoma County had we experienced a wind-driven fire that burned 11 miles in five hours.”
Filmmaker Bierma keeps her camera trained on what those changes have wrought, using scientist, firefighters, and fire victims to tell the story. Funded by the Environmental Health Sciences Center at U.C. Davis, “Waking Up to Wildfires” is an exploration of how our changing climate imperils life here, and how fallout from the disaster may linger indefinitely.
According to the film, the synthetic chemicals released by burned homes have impacted the short- and long-term health of us all, with the toxic effects of that smoke calculated to be far worse than everyday pollution. The ferocity of the fire took firefighters by surprise, too, with many of them expressing astonishment at its power. “California has experienced devastating fires for decades,” says Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott. “But we’re seeing fires burning at an intensity we haven’t seen before.”
“Waking Up to Wildfires” looks both forward and back, examining how we got to that fateful October day, and considering where we must go from here. The most destructive wildfire in California history took 44 lives, devoured 9,000 structures, blackened 245,000 acres, and left an indelible mark on Sonoma.
The film screens at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4, at the Sebastiani Theatre. The 30-minute documentary is free to the public and will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Paige Bierma; Iva Hertz-Picciotto, lead scientist conducting wildfire research for UC Davis; and Calfire Batallion Chief Gino DeGraffenreid.
A voluntary contribution of $20 to the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation is encouraged at the door.
Watch the trailer at
What: ‘Waking up to Wildfires’
When: Sunday, Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Sebastiani Theatre
Who: Funded by the Environmental Health Sciences Center at U.C. Davis