Telling the Story: Fire on the Ridge
Nancy Hamilton, the creator of Fire on the Ridge, reflects on the tragedy of the 2018 Camp Fire in California and how her experience shaped her new film.
Watch the interview with our host, Bill Carroll, and Fire on the Ridge's Nancy Hamilton or read it below!
Read Telling the Story: Fire on the Ridge
Bill: I recently interviewed Nancy Hamilton, an independent filmmaker who grew up in Australia. She later returned to the United States where she was born, and she has lived in Butte County California for the past 25 years. Nancy makes documentary and narrative films through her company Golden Eagle Films. In 2012 she created the film Jesus Desire of Ages in association with Vision Video and now, Nancy has a new film out called Fire on the Ridge. It tells the story of the 2018 forest fire known as the Camp Fire. It was the most destructive wildfire in California's history. Fire on the Ridge is the first dramatized film about the Camp Fire. It is especially important to Nancy because she lives in the area where the fire took place and experienced it firsthand. I asked Nancy about her experience on November 8th, 2018, the day of the Camp Fire.
Nancy: On the day of the Camp Fire, it was morning and I was actually up on the on the ridge and I didn't think it was going to be as serious as it was. Obviously, I don't think anybody realized just how serious the event was as it was unfolding. We knew it was bad, but we didn't know how broad a scope it was. It was encompassing and so it was a moment by moment experience and I had to get down off of the ridge back down to Chico, where I live, and of course as everyone experienced the cars were backed up and we really didn't know if we were going to get down and how long it was going to take to get down. So, it was a it was a scary experience to say the least.
B: And how were you personally impacted by the fire?
My church burnt down. Many of my friends’ families lost their houses. Of course, 19,000 buildings were destroyed, so the impact was huge and I think there were very few people in the area who didn't have somebody who had lost a home, if not themselves. Everyone in the area was impacted.
Nancy Hamilton, creator of Fire on the Ridge
N: I have a lot of friends, family, and neighbors that were directly impacted by the fire. My church burnt down. Many of my friends’ families lost their houses. Of course, 19,000 buildings were destroyed, so the impact was huge and I think there were very few people in the area who didn't have somebody who had lost a home, if not themselves. Everyone in the area was impacted.
B: So, you must have been concerned about your safety and for your loved ones and your property, but as a filmmaker, was your first instinct to shoot what was going on around you?
N: Yes, my first instinct was to shoot the fire as it was going, as it was happening, as it was unfolding…that's just what filmmakers do, right? So I had my camera with me and that's what I was doing. I was videoing it up on the ridge as it was taking place and taking photographs etc. From that point on, I continued to film and document the events for the next month, every single day and going back. Because I had a press pass, I was able to go in and out freely, whereas it had been blocked off as a fire zone to everybody else. I was able to go back in and out the blockades and continue to document the devastation.
B: You use the footage that you shot to make two documentaries about the fire and then you decided to make a narrative or dramatic film about the fire. What influenced your thinking to do that?
N: After we had made the Camp Fire documentary and released it, it was very encouraging to a lot of people that otherwise had no encouragement. It was a ray of light and a ray of hope that God hadn't forsaken us and that He was in the midst of that great trial and so then we did the follow-up documentary, Scattered in the Ashes, within about three or four months straight after the Camp Fire of the people that were suffering from PTSD and how they were coping with that. I knew through both of those documentaries that I wanted to make a feature film and the reason that I wanted to make a feature film was because you just couldn't document the emotional content and the second by second and minute by minute events that took place in a worthy sort of way with a documentary. I really don't think that it could have really been made as a feature film by someone outside of the area that that hadn't experienced it because you had to experience it to know how it felt and so I knew that we wanted to make a feature film. I thought it was impossible. I actually submitted the screenplay to a lot of the big studios like Sony and etc. and of course, it was rejected because we're just a small independent filmmaking company. Then I decided that we would make it ourselves and if all we had were our cameras, we would just make it ourselves. And so myself and my co-producer, Des Rediander, and other people, my other producers, we just jumped in.
B: You used many local volunteers as actors in the film, some of them were reenacting their own stories of survival. Tell us about that process and that decision to use volunteer actors?
There were some 250 volunteers and I would say at least half of those…yeah about a hundred of the people in the film, were involved in the Camp Fire themselves, either as Camp Fire survivors or as direct people that helped their own friends and family. There was great participation of volunteers. A lot of the actors that were in the film weren't really actors, they were actually people that had gone through the Camp Fire and experienced it themselves.
Nancy Hamilton, creator of Fire on the Ridge
N: I knew early on when I was writing the screenplay. Actually, the screenplay was almost a two-hour movie, but because of incredible budget restrictions I knew that we would only be able to make it at the most an hour feature. I also knew that we wanted to be able to have many of the real people that experienced the Camp Fire play their own roles and even though there were a lot of people that did play the right roles, there was also a lot of people that although they didn't play their own role directly, they played as features in the movie. They had still been involved in the Camp Fire themselves, lost their homes or whatever, even though they didn't re-enact their own role. There were some 250 volunteers and I would say at least half of those…yeah about a hundred of the people in the film, were involved in the Camp Fire themselves, either as Camp Fire survivors or as direct people that helped their own friends and family. There was great participation of volunteers. A lot of the actors that were in the film weren't really actors, they were actually people that had gone through the Camp Fire and experienced it themselves. There were friends and family or church members and so they were people that we already knew were local residents, that we already knew had escaped the fire, and some of them were staying in our home and or someone else's home. It's a rather small community you know relatively speaking, it's not like Los Angeles, so there were a lot of a lot of people that we already knew. When we made the first documentary, we met a lot of the fire chiefs and a lot of the fire crew, along with a lot of the first responders personally. Then when we told them, after we produced the first documentary, people were moved by that, they contacted me to thank me and to thank us for our involvement in making that. From there we just made more friends and it's a very natural, normal thing I think after a natural disaster of this size and scope to want to be able to tell your story.
B: But it must have been really difficult for those people to reenact the trauma that they went through.
N: It was very difficult for the people that experienced the fire to reenact their own roles. In fact, it was a sacrifice. It was a second by second, minute-by-minute sacrifice because they weren't acting, they were reliving their own emotions and their own experience and it was very, very hard. We would shoot a scene and then after the scene we would all just break down crying for a long period of time. It wasn't just a movie, it was the retelling of one of the most painful events in a lot of these people's lives, who were actually on screen. You're not seeing acting; you're seeing people that are reliving their experience. It was a time to face your own humanity full-on and come to grips with the emotions of loss and grief and pain. This is in the middle of a lot of these people who are still trying to find their own new homes. So, yes it was healing, but it was a very painful way of healing. But they did it. They wanted people to know their stories and the events that they experienced in the hopes that it would encourage some people and it would also prevent further loss in other fires, if it could be prevented.
B: Nancy, as a Christian who believes in God's mercy and goodness, how do you make sense of a tragedy like this?
God sent His son and He sacrificed His son to save us and that sacrifice is reflected again and again and again in every human being that's willing to lay down their life for their fellow men. We saw that by the thousands during the Camp Fire and that was very important to me to document that because it was a very dark time, as you can imagine, and there was a lot of sadness. Yet in the middle of all of that, I could see God's hand.
Nancy Hamilton, creator of Fire on the Ridge
I think one of the hardest questions that everyone asks is why does God allow this to happen? Other people actually say God does it. That tragic events are an act of God. I mean that's the terminology used in a lot of insurance companies. Personally myself, we live in a world of sin and it's devastated by sin regardless of whether natural disasters come or people hurt other people or whatever. That's just the world we live in. Since the fall, it's a world of sin and we do the best that we can in it. I think that what affects me the most and what I want to concentrate on is that even in the midst of sin and the devastation that it causes in all of its various forms, whether it's climate change or murder or whatever, they are results of the original fall. What I want to concentrate on is the grace of God to help humanity sacrifice itself because of the holy spirit dwelling in a human being. God sent His son and He sacrificed His son to save us and that sacrifice is reflected again and again and again in every human being that's willing to lay down their life for their fellow men. We saw that by the thousands during the Camp Fire and that was very important to me to document that because it was a very dark time, as you can imagine, and there was a lot of sadness. Yet in the middle of all of that, I could see God's hand. That He had saved so many thousands of people that would otherwise have perished in the fire because everyone there. There were so many people that just took it upon themselves, civilians and individuals, to help who they could as they were trying to escape the fire. It was a very courageous time for many people and they really just sacrificed their own safety. It had to be documented.
B: I’d like to thank Nancy Hamilton for joining me today and sharing her story. You can see Fire on the Ridge now on Redeem TV in the additional donor content section. That is Telling the Story, I'm Bill Carroll.