National Forest Foundation

“Fire and Water: Restoring Arizona’s Forests” Behind the Scenes of the Documentary Film

The National Forest System, Forest Ecology

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For me, good documentaries are special…an opportunity to learn, to be drawn into another world, and to be moved. A great documentary may even inspire change in my own life, or to take action in my community. 

The film “Fire and Water: Restoring Arizona’s Forests” explores the issues around wildfire in the West, its interwoven relationship with water, and showcases how people are coming together in Arizona to get at the root of the cause. 

It shows us that fire is personal, and devastating to communities, but that solutions, while not easy, are closer than we might think. Underlying the dramatic visuals and the stark landscapes, bubbles to the surface the idea that we are at a precipice of change – we can either tackle the wildfire problem together, or be ever impacted by its aftermath.

Not many people have the opportunity to chat with films producers to ask behind-the-scene questions, but I am lucky enough to call Kristin Atwell my friend. Ms. Atwell is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, writer and producer. She wrote and produced “Fire and Water”. She shared some beautiful insight about the making of this movie, and its personal impact.

NFF: What captivated you about the subject matter of “Fire & Water”?

Kristin Atwell: I live in the desert, so forests fires always seemed like something that happened somewhere else to someone else. The more I learned about the connection between catastrophic fire, landscape health, and our water supply in Arizona, I realized wildfire affects us all. 

Fire wipes out homes and livelihoods and reverberates from that private devastation to ravage businesses and, ultimately, the economy of the entire state. You can’t live in a house that has burned to the ground. And you can’t live in a desert without water. 

Removing excess fuel from the landscape to return resiliency to our forests and watersheds is one of the most pertinent issues of our age. It’s up to us to fix it.

Smoke from the Mesa Fire (2010) behind the community of Wupatki Trails in Arizona. 

NFF: Is there anything you encountered while making the film that surprised you? 

Kristin Atwell: The Rodeo-Chediski fire ripped through half-a-million acres in Northern Arizona in 2002. When we were interviewing people for the film in the mountain town Heber, Arizona, which had entire neighborhoods flattened by Rodeo-Chediski, I was stunned by how raw people’s emotions still were 15 years later. 

Everywhere we went, the diner, the fire station, the local nail salon, we heard stories of terror, loss and devastation, as if they had been through war. It takes a long time to rebuild homes, business, and even lives. 

One person told us his marriage broke up because of the stress of losing their home in the fire. We really felt the trauma of mega-fire and its long-term fallout in people’s lives. 

So many of the environmental issues we face today can feel overwhelming, but this is an issue with a local solution.

Kristin Atwell, film producer

NFF: What do you think is the overall benefit of the film?

Kristin Atwell: Films create a collective experience. When you watch “Fire & Water”, whether you live near the forest or in a desert high rise, I hope you’re given the opportunity to better understand how the vitality of Arizona’s economy and our quality of life depend on a healthy, self-regulating landscape. 

So many of the environmental issues we face today can feel overwhelming, but this is an issue with a local solution. Out-of-control fire, mudslides, flooding are terrifying, but ultimately this is a good news story. People are crossing entrenched party lines to work together and restore our forests. We’re witnessing a historic moment. 

Thirty years ago in Arizona you couldn’t leave a logger and an environmentalist in a room alone together, let alone expect them to collaborate. Now the timber industry, environmental organizations, and the Forest Service are all at the table implementing solutions together. The issue is bigger than partisanship. 

Leaders in Arizona being able to move past old divisions toward inclusive solutions is heartening, revolutionary, and a positive response to a far-reaching problem. The next step is the public knowing the what causes mega-fires and what we can do to curtail them. We all need to be on the same page in order to restore the landscape and safeguard Arizona’s future. And I love documentaries for that ability to create community.

“Fire and Water” originally aired on PBS in 2017. We are excited to screen the film at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. Come meet Ms. Atwell, other “Fire and Water” producers as well as a panel of experts on Thursday, February 1 at 7pm. This film shows us that it truly takes a village to move mountains and shift the tides, but for the sake of protecting our forests, water and economy, we must do it together.


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