‘Behind the Burning Vines’ now on YouTube

The documentary “Behind the Burning Vines” is now available on YouTube|

<strong id="strong-ce5cc5532c34660d74058b418b39c0ea">How to watch</strong>

What: “Behind the Burning Vines”

Where: Streaming on YouTube.com

When: Available for viewing 24/7

Cost: No charge.

If there is a bright side to the fires that continue to ravage the West, it is to be found in the countless acts of selfless courage and generosity by first responders, volunteers and ordinary people.

When the Glass fire broke out last September in Napa County, a young Petaluman, Will Twomey, and his friend Chris Kam, a cinematographer, were primed to capture the drama on film. The result is “Behind the Burning Vines,” a 40-minute documentary now available for viewing on YouTube.

Because of COVID-19, Twomey, a senior at Yale University majoring in history, was spending his junior year at his parents’ ranch in Petaluma. One of his online courses was on documentary filmmaking. As he pondered possible topics for a documentary film project, the subject that kept coming to mind was the sometimes surprising ways that people respond when they find themselves in the path of a catastrophic fire.

“I have lived on a small ranch in Petaluma my whole life,” Twomey said. “Growing up surrounded by animals and having gone to high school in Santa Rosa where many classmates have lost their homes, I have always been amazed by the incredible selflessness that comes out of our area’s wildfires. It seems like no matter what people have to give, they always find a way to step up and help their neighbors.”

As the 2020 fire season got underway, Twomey and Kam decided to be ready to capture community response if a major fire broke out nearby.

“It was late August and the state had already surpassed the record for acres burned,” Twomey said. “It was only a matter of time before the fires hit close to home.”

Kam, who recently graduated from high school, has been making videos since middle school and began working commercially as a teenager. Within a few days, Twomey and Kam had several firefighting contacts lined up and were waiting for the moment to spring into action.

Then the Glass fire erupted.

On Sept. 27, the fire started northeast of Napa, near Calistoga and St. Helena. Because the north end of Napa Valley narrows to a point, a westbound fire can cross from Napa into Sonoma County easily with the right conditions, as it did in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

“I woke up to a call from a friend, Danny Drohan,” Twomey wrote in an article for Yale News last November. A volunteer with the local fire department, Drohan knew about the planned documentary. “He warned me that something big was about to happen.”

Drohan told Twomey that a relatively small fire in Napa would be out of control in a matter of hours. Soon, a text from Kam — who had been monitoring local fire and emergency reports on the radio — arrived confirming the news.

Twomey and Kam immediately went behind the lines, videoing firefighters, police officers, animal evacuators, and other members of the community. The resulting footage serves as a visceral and vivid portrait of the fire, especially as it impacts vineyards, ranches and farm animals. To flesh out the film, the filmmakers subsequently interviewed various participants in the drama.

On the first day of shooting, the filmmakers found themselves on a side road, engulfed in smoke. Suddenly, the smoke dissipated and they saw a small house still untouched by flames. In the yard was a man on a tractor making a fire line to protect the property. They assumed the man was the owner, but he turned out to be a local road worker named Dave Cardwell. While passing through, Cardwell had found a key in the tractor and decided to give a fighting chance to the home of people he had never met.

“Dave saw nothing remarkable in his effort and was incredibly nonchalant, even as the flames neared,” Twomey wrote. “The house is still standing today.”

The Glass fire lasted 23 days. It burned nearly 70,000 acres and many homes and businesses, but unlike earlier fires in the area, no people were injured or killed.

Among many heroes profiled in Twomey and Kam’s film, Shelinda Moreda stands out. A young woman who races motorcycles, Moreda grew up on a Petaluma dairy farm. When Tubbs hit in 2017, she and other farmers got calls about trapped horses on Bennett Valley Road, but there was no coordination of rescue. The result was blocked roads caused by too many trailers, creating serious delays in reaching animals in need of help. The experience inspired Moreda to create NorCal Livestock Evacuation & Support, a nonprofit that activates during wildfires to coordinate animal rescues.

“I figured out real quick that there was no system in place to get animals out of fires,” Moreda recalls in the film. She went to work compiling a database of local farms, ranches, with contact information and details on the locations of that site’s animals, along with a list of willing volunteers, with any trucks and trailers they might have available to help with the relocation of endangered animals.

“I had no idea what I was starting,” she recalls in the film. The first night of the Glass fire, at 1:30 a.m., she was preparing to go to bed when the first call for help came. She sent out the trailer closest to the caller. The calls kept coming and Moreda sat on her bed managing rescues until noon the next day — 10 hours of what she soon learned was called “dispatching.”

“The only cool thing about the fires is the community building,” Moreda says in the film. “There are people who come out of the woodwork to help. It’s crazy the generosity that you see.”

As additional examples, Moreda describes people who donated their only electric fan to animal rescuers to keep pigs and chickens cool, the man who wired two barns for fans at the Petaluma fairgrounds to keep sheltered animals cool, the many donations to Redwood Veterinary — where burned animals are treated. She also mentions Rivertown Feed, where volunteers get hay and grain for rescued animals; and the many local people who offer to house displaced animals temporarily.

In “Behind the Burning Vines,” we meet Tony August, a rancher who lost everything but his horses and dogs in the Tubbs Fire. We watch him and Casey Goltermann, both volunteers with NorCal Livestock Evac, rescuing farm animals as the Glass fire nears.

“We have a saying, ‘Large or small, we’ll carry them all,’” August says in the film. “If we can get them in that trailer, I don’t care if they’re laying down or standing up.”

Another interviewee is Colin MacPhail, the former general manager of Fairwinds Estate Winery, which was destroyed by the fire.

“It was shocking,” he tells the camera. “Everything was gone. The umbrellas were twisted. The only thing they saved was the American flag.”

In a moving scene, we watch firefighters hand over the singed flag to the owners of the winery. We learn that the fire hydrant in front of the winery had run dry after the pump station burned.

For Kam, shooting the film was a test of his skills.

“A bunch of things went wrong,” he said, citing technical glitches with both mic and playback, but he got the job done. “I think of this experience as the capstone of my career so far,” he said. Kam has a special fondness for first responders because he suffered a badly broken leg in Annadel State Park in 2014 and was rescued by helicopter.

Twomey aspires to become a naval aviator. For him, the film — which he plans to enter in several upcoming film festivals — is a thank you to his community.

“One of the remarkable things about this country is that, quite often, the most extraordinary people appear in the worst of times,” Twomey said. “They don’t arrive out of a desire to be recognized or because they have to. It is their love of community that drives them to do whatever it takes to help others.”

<strong id="strong-ce5cc5532c34660d74058b418b39c0ea">How to watch</strong>

What: “Behind the Burning Vines”

Where: Streaming on YouTube.com

When: Available for viewing 24/7

Cost: No charge.

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