Documentary filmmakers find themselves in middle of Yukon's busiest wildfire season in years

·3 min read
Whitehorse-based filmmakers Tova Krentzman, left, and Emily Sheff are making a film about fire lookout towers in Yukon and Alberta. (Underwire Films - image credit)
Whitehorse-based filmmakers Tova Krentzman, left, and Emily Sheff are making a film about fire lookout towers in Yukon and Alberta. (Underwire Films - image credit)

It could have been a film solely about the quiet solitude of the fire tower attendant, keeping peaceful watch over a tranquil expanse of northern wilderness.

But Whitehorse-based documentarians Emily Sheff and Tova Krentzman have instead found themselves shooting footage in the midst of what's been called an unprecedented wildfire season in Yukon.

There are more than 150 wildfires now active, roads closed, communities under evacuation alert, and emergency resources sometimes stretched thin. It's anything but a "quiet" season.

"It's been really incredible to have the opportunity to be making this film, at this time," said Krentzman.

"To actually be driving down the highway, you know, with flames and smoke on either side … it's been challenging, but at the same time very rewarding."

Sheff and Krentzman's plan is to visit several fire towers scattered through Yukon, some of them staffed and some not, as well as some in Alberta.

They conceived the idea long before summer, and despite the drama of Yukon's current fire season they say the film's essential focus will not change — it's about the people who choose to spend long, lonely days perched high in a tower, scanning the landscape, ready to alert their communities to any sign of danger.

Underwire Films
Underwire Films

"They're just incredible people, unique individuals. They're just comfortable with solitude and comfortable being alone, and find connection in their environment and also with the work they're doing," Krentzman said.

"It's interesting, especially coming out of a time where people have been forced to be in solitude, and here we have people choosing to be in solitude. So there's a lot of levels here, and layers."

Sheff says the tower staff are a critical component of wildfire response, as they can provide early detection that helps guide firefighting efforts. She says the people they've spoken to are all very passionate about their jobs.

Underwire Films
Underwire Films

She points to Markus Lenzin, who mans the tower near Dawson City, as a good example of why tower attendants are so essential.

"He spotted six fires in one day. And so, they're just amazing people. They know the landscape so well. And, you know, they can detect fires up to 60 kilometres away from their towers. So it's pretty amazing to watch them do what they do," Sheff said.

On Monday, the two filmmakers were hoping to visit the fire tower near Carmacks, Yukon, but weather conditions prevented that from happening. Instead they headed back home to Whitehorse, to try another time. They've gotten used to shifting gears and "going with the flow," Sheff says.

Underwire Films
Underwire Films

They're also conscious of staying out of the way when people have jobs to do. Often that means trying to grab an interview early in the morning, or late in the day.

"We're definitely aware that a lot of these folks are exhausted, and they already have very long days. So we're being really careful to shoot what we can," Sheff said.

"We're really trying to be a fly-on-the-wall."

Underwire Films
Underwire Films

They've got more filming to do in Yukon before they head to Alberta to talk to fire tower operators there. The film itself is scheduled to be out by September 2023, if not sooner.

"Its timeliness is what everyone who's making a film wants," Krentzman said. "It is incredible, what we're encountering."

The two filmmakers are already sharing some pictures and video through their Underwire Films Instagram account.

"It's quite an adventure — two women out in the bush, making a wildfire film. Pretty exciting," Sheff said.

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