Documentary and Series Producer's Guide
Featuring Wildfire on Television and the Big Screen
Wildfire is one of nature's most volatile forces, and it is a staple of broadcast news every fire season. For decades, films and television shows have also told compelling stories associated with wildfires and firefighting. NIFC is an active partner with production companies in telling these stories.
This guide is intended to provide basic information on the policies and processes followed by NIFC in considering proposals to use federal firefighting crews, incident management teams and wildland fire equipment in a documentary film or television series production. Producers with proposals or ideas in the genres of documentary film, docu-series, and reality television will find valuable information on this site.
Getting Proposals Approved
NIFC generally follows a five-step process in facilitating feature films, documentaries and television shows involving federal wildland fire personnel. Both NIFC staff and producers have responsibilities in this process:
Please take the time to research wildland fire management prior to developing your proposal. If you are unfamiliar with the basics, you will be at a disadvantage in discussing your proposal. Wildland fire personnel like incident commanders, hotshots and smokejumpers are wary of working with producers who have not taken the time to learn at least the basic terminology and techniques of wildland firefighting. Serious proposals show evidence of this kind of study.
Submitting a written treatment to NIFC External Affairs staff is the best way to ensure that your proposal is properly evaluated. Most of the time, we are able to gather the information we need by reading your treatment, exchanging emails or speaking on the phone. NIFC External Affairs staff are also available to meet in person if that is desired.
Although these are not the only areas we consider, NIFC External Affairs staff evaluates producer's proposals in five key areas:
Will the project enhance the professionalism of wildland firefighters? Will it convey a positive message? Does the proposal evidence a commitment to factuality? Does the proposal target an audience the agencies wish to reach?
Does the proposal appear to be logistically feasible? Does it realistically account for difficulties in gaining access to backcountry and wilderness fires? Are the technical requirements inherent in the proposal possible in a wildland fire setting? Are shooting schedules and timelines realistic for the topic?
Does the hosting agency have the staff time available to support the project? Does the proposal meet the parameters required for a commercial filming permit (usually required to film on public lands)? Is the concept likely to win the support of wildland firefighters and agency administrators?
Does the proposal evidence a robust and tangible commitment to safety during the production phase? Does the proposal include inherently risky filming objectives (air-to-air shooting, filming adjacent to crown fires, etc)? Are the members of the production crew in good physical shape?
Benefit to Agency
What tangible benefits to the hosting agency does the proposal offer? If completed, will the project assist the agency with issues like recruitment and retention of employees or education and wildfire prevention efforts? Will the project help the agency communicate programs or policies that are not widely understood?
If NIFC's initial evaluation of the proposal is positive and an agency agrees to sponsor the project in principle, a NIFC External Affairs staff member and the producer can begin the process of negotiating a written agreement. The agreement will describe the working relationship between the production company, the hosting unit and the sponsoring agency. In effect, this agreement sets the ground rules that will help the project stay on track and come to a successful conclusion.
While we are working on an agreement, NIFC External Affairs staff will usually begin looking for a unit or a specific crew that would function as the subject(s) of the project. In some cases, the producer will already have a subject crew or unit in mind.
Although NIFC specialists may see value in the proposal and want to provide it, that is not a guarantee that a crew or unit can be found to sponsor the project.
The US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and most other federal land management agencies require a commercial filming permit for feature films, television commercials, television programs and most kinds of documentaries filmed on public lands. The purposes of a commercial filming permit are two-fold: to prevent or mitigate impacts to public land resulting from the filming activity, and to defray agency costs devoted to planning and monitoring the filming on public lands.
Commercial filming permits include fees, which are focused on the impacts and use of public land. Commercial filming permits, however, are not just intended for cost recovery. These permits are also a means by which agencies comply with laws governing environmental impacts to natural resources.
Depending on the nature of impact to public lands, obtaining a commercial filming permit can take as little as a few weeks. Securing a permit for projects with large production crews, sets, lighting, etc can take much longer. NIFC urges producers to submit permit application materials early in this process, to account for time needed to process the permit. Requirements for permits, and the amount of time it can take to issue permits, can vary between agencies, states, regions and individual units.
Additional information about obtaining commercial film permits is available on the following websites:
Once the producer and sponsoring agency have signed an agreement and the necessary permits have been obtained, the sponsoring agency, the producer and the hosting unit will work out a production schedule and filming can begin.
Most federal agencies will assign a public affairs officer as a liaison to a filming project. This person will help resolve logistical issues, assure that the hosting unit and the production crew work in accord with the agreement, and arrange an escort for production personnel to the fireline. Qualified fireline escorts to members of the media are required by interagency policy, and escorts can actually make your job easier.
- Work with agencies to find a topic or an approach that works for both parties.
- We receive far more filming requests each year than we have staff time to support. Consequently, we encourage producers to work with us to develop treatments of interest to both agencies and television audiences.
- Allow plenty of lead time before you plan to start filming.
- It takes time to negotiate with crews, line up permits and permissions, and find filming locations that meet production needs.
- Similarly, realize that NIFC cannot guarantee access to crews and locations on a fire.
- The Incident Commander has the final authority for approving documentary and news filming on his or her fire. The Incident Commander's authority supersedes agreements with NIFC, individual crews and agencies. Despite our best intentions, NIFC cannot assure that a production team will meet all its filming goals on a fire.
- Be up-front with federal agencies as far as who you are talking to.
- Some documentary film producers have tried to surreptitiously work with more than one federal fire agency at the same time on the same project - without informing the agencies of this approach. This practice typically ca
- Do your research.
- The more knowledgeable producers are on the subject of wildland fire, the more effectively we can work together. Calling a pulaski a "chopper," and confusing a "team" and a "crew" on a fire usually means you have not taken the time to understand your subject.
- Embrace the same commitment to safety as we do.
- Cutting corners when it comes to safety will quickly lead to a brick wall when working with firefighters and fire managers. This is especially true in the field of fire aviation.
While they are not necessarily deal breakers, these "red flags" are indicators of significant problems or issues in proposals that must be resolved before agencies will support them.
NIFC External Affairs staff looks for "red flags" in proposals, including:
- 'Embedding' production personnel on firefighting crews.
- Filming fire personnel when they are off duty.
- Treatments in which the elements of drama overshadow factual information.
- Proposals which seek to focus on a few "characters" on a crew.
- Treatments that distort or inaccurately present firefighters' true roles.
- Technical demands beyond what agencies can accommodate.
- Proposals with overly risky elements or expectations.
- Proposals with no tangible benefit to the government.
- Grossly unrealistic time schedules.
In addition, NIFC tends to avoid proposals for lengthy television series, because hosting units and agencies usually can't commit to open-ended and on-going projects.