Documentary 'Urban Inferno' aims to help survivors of North Bay wildfires

A new movie premiered Thursday evening in the North Bay, and it's no mystery how the plot ends.

It's called "Urban Inferno: The Night Santa Rosa Burned."

And its creators hope it helps firestorm survivors heal. 

"I think once people understand, 'Oh, that's what we all went through,' then all of us as a city can move forward," said producer-director Stephen Seager, who evacuated his Montecito Heights home on the night of Oct. 8.

"If you want to know what it was like to be there with us, this is what the story is about," said Seager. 
"Police will tell you, they were tackling women running down the street with their nightgowns on fire, that's how close they came to dying."

The documentary was hatched at the dinner table by Seager and his wife, both physicians, who also make films. Their previous two efforts were on the subject of mental health. Trauma, resiliency, and recovery are definitely elements of this film, too. 

"Seven thousand homes burned," reminded Seager, "so just go around your neighborhood and start counting and when you get to 7,000, you'll see how huge this was." 

The Seager's home survived, but they had no way of knowing that, escaping with their son and their cats, and running for their lives. 

Because they lived it, they wanted to capture it.    

"There were people who went to bed and two hours later had to decide which one of my neighbors do I save?" asked Seager. "Some people jumped in the pool and survived. Some people jumped in and boiled to death," he added, "and the people in this film and in this audience were  making decisions just like that."

The 40- minute film uses raw footage from cell phones and body-worn cameras, plus interviews with survivors, journalists, and first responders."

Many survivors, in the immediate chaos and the disaster aftermath, couldn't grasp the scope of all that was happening that night.

"With this, you get some time and some distance and a different perspective," said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who attended the premiere.

Gossner appears in the movie, but says he also gleaned new information from it.  "The community really pulled together and helped each other," he said, "and I knew that, but this really shows it, and it's a powerful movie." 

The film was followed by discussion, because of the trauma it dredges up. 

"There are some people who don't want to see the movie, they say they can't handle it," co-producer Mette Seager said. She and her husband know it may be too soon some, but they also worry about pain- suppressed and set aside as life goes on. 

They've noticed people tend to open up after seeing the film.

"They start talking, they start telling their stories and I think that's so helpful, " said Mette Seager, "because even terrible stories are important, so we are hopeful that people will find this cathartic, respectful, and healing." 

At Thursday's showing, trauma counselors were stationed outside the theater door for anyone who might find it comforting to talk afterward on such a traumatic subject.   

"It is painful, it is, and I'm not sure that I can see it," said counselor Jennifer Olson, " so I consider these people all very brave for coming to see it."   

For families who lost their homes, the documentary is especially emotional.

"I feel like we re-lived it, it was authentic and it was raw, " said Gina Lord, who came to the showing with husband Ken and daughters Taylor and Shelby.

The family home in Mark West Springs burned down. 

"As hard as it was to watch it, I think they captured the essence of what that night was about," said Gina, "heroes, some in uniforms, some not."

 The film ends on a message of hope, saluting the best of human nature that was on display the night disaster hit and neighbor saved neighbor.  

"Everyone experienced that night their own way, so this video showed it in a different way that we didn't get to experience," said Shelby Lord," and it was eye-opening for all of us."  

The premiere was a benefit with $20 tickets raising about $15,000 in two sold-out showings. 

Next, "Urban Inferno" moved to another theater downtown, with admission $5, and it will play for as long as people come to see it.

All proceeds will be donated to a community fund dedicated to fire recovery and resiliency. 

"I just watched it for the 51st time," said producer Seager, "and I still cry every time at the end."