Documentary ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ Tells Harrowing Tale of Woolsey, Camp Fires

A still from "Bring Your Own Brigade" by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. 

Two-time Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker had boots on the ground in Malibu as soon as the worst of the Woolsey Fire was over in November 2018—a fire that resulted in three deaths and 1,600 structures burned. And, because of a state law allowing journalists access in such situations, the crew had no trouble getting past sheriff’s department roadblocks in order to film. Simultaneously, Walker’s crew also covered what was happening in Paradise, Calif., which suffered the loss of 86 lives and 11,000 homes in the Camp Fire on the same day Malibu was burning.

The resulting documentary, “Bring your own Brigade,” gets to the heart of what happens to people living through those fires and losses, and contrasts how two communities at opposite ends of the political spectrum handle the aftermath of similar disasters.

“It’s a big story to get your head around,” writer/director Walker said in a phone interview. “I met firefighters, gained access and rode around with them. We had front row seats to what was happening. We built relationships with people we met at the Malibu West Swim Club evacuation center and at Paradise Cove.” She met the Point Dume Bombers, the impromptu fire brigade that saved so many homes on Point Dume, and interviewed more than 50 people in Malibu, although only six or seven made the final cut—including Marshall Mullen, Candace Brown and Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner.

Also included are some of Malibu’s town hall meetings, including an infamous one with then-City Manager Reva Feldman in the fire’s aftermath. 

Walker first became interested in doing a documentary about California’s wildfires during the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December 2017. By the time she secured funding to make the film, the Thomas Fire was long over. But when it became apparent that Thomas was going to be eclipsed by the even larger Camp and Woolsey fires, she decided to do a case study of both and sprang into action.

“I’m not a ‘message-y’ kind of filmmaker. I don’t have a message in this film. I’m a storyteller—I just try to understand what people are going through and I was very moved,” Walker said. “It’s a complicated, emotional story, and I learned a lot. It’s really interesting to meet people with the courage to stay and fight fires. There was so much heroism and community spirit. I was in awe of that. I was sharing stories from the front lines and people’s reflections on the situation.”

The documentary takes a step back from the Malibu and Paradise fires from time to time to explore the science behind the cause of wildfires, and whether anything could make the fires less severe, aside from stopping global warming.

The film explores the country’s fire suppression policies over the past century, attributed somewhat to pressure from lumber companies, which caused 100 years’ worth of fuel to build up in some areas. The “fire is bad” mentality is also traced back to the U.S.’s European settlers, who weren’t familiar with the prescribed burns practiced in the West by Native Americans to prevent fuel build-up.

The film observes that Malibu residents planted trees in historically treeless areas. In addition, it asks why new houses were constructed within the footprints of past fires. 

One interesting fact: Statistics prove that homes built after California’s landmark 2008 building code upgrades for fire hazard zones, including fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards, have been far less likely to burn down than older homes without those building standards. 

In a published analysis of CalFire data and property records, 51 percent of the 350 single family homes built after 2008 in the Camp Fire were undamaged. In contrast, only 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built prior to 2008 were undamaged (not including mobile homes).

Statistics also show that two simple changes can make a huge difference in a house not burning down:  no rain gutters and a five-foot clear space around the house.

In The Hollywood Reporter review of “Bring your own Brigade,” critic Leslie Felperin writes, “It’s probably the smartest, most interesting documentary so far on the subject as it adroitly balances views of survivors, first responders and observers while sifting in an accessible way through the complex science that causes such fires.” 

Walker was previously nominated for two Oscars: best documentary, short subjects— “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” (2011) and best documentary, features—“Waste Land” (2010).

“Bring your own Brigade” will be in theaters Aug. 6 and available on CBSN and Paramount+ for streaming on Aug. 20. It will also be screened by the Malibu Film Society at a date yet to be decided.