Home Culture Arts & Entertainment Leora Eisen’s fascination with fire makes her most-in-demand documentarian

Leora Eisen’s fascination with fire makes her most-in-demand documentarian

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Leora Eisen

The saying goes that you’re supposed to do one thing that scares you every day. For the past year, Toronto documentary filmmaker Leora Eisen has been taking that advice, researching and working on a project that brought her up close with a personal fear: fire.

Eisen says she can still clearly remember an event more than three decades ago, when a fire in her Toronto highrise led to her stumbling and coughing her way down a smoky staircase.

“I’m that person who always makes sure the campfire is out,” she tells The CJN.

However, that caution has retreated. Eisen’s curiosity and passion, one that has made her one of Canada’s most in-demand documentarians, is on display in Into the Fire, which will air Nov. 5 on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

The one-hour special explores the ways that climate change has aggravated the size and severity of wildfires.

According to climate change scientists, a vicious cycle of warming temperatures and large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has helped to create wilder infernos. Meanwhile, those temperatures should increase the number of lightning strikes, a phenomenon that frequently starts fires.

“The science is rock solid when it comes to showing how climate change is creating more fires … and making them more intense and extreme,” Eisen says.

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The film’s subject matter screams with topicality, due to the wildfires that raged through British Columbia and into the Prairies this summer, burning more than one million hectares of land.

Eisen says that the idea for the film came to her even before the evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alta., in May 2016.

Beyond chronicling ways that scientists and fire safety experts are trying to understand fire’s effects, Into the Fire provides awareness about ways that Canadians can prevent disasters from torching their homes.

For one, citizens should resist buying furniture made with toxic, flammable materials. Another strategy, Eisen says, is to refrain from placing piles of wood underneath a deck or close to one’s house.

“I think something like 60 per cent of Canadian communities face the potential threat or risk of a wildfire coming their way, because they live near the woods or grasslands,” she adds.

Shooting the documentary extended into Canada’s wildfire season this summer, and Eisen spent a couple of days in British Columbia in July as the flames were spreading there.

However, her research for this newest project took her beyond the Canadian wilderness. She visited a Montana laboratory with a “burn chamber,” where scientists ignite a controlled fire on a tilted platform to try to determine why fires spread horizontally.

Meanwhile, a segment filmed in Australia focuses on the ways that local authorities have learned from indigenous peoples how to fight fire. The ancient practice of patch burning, where spots in empty fields are burned early in the dry season, is one way people can reduce fuel buildup.

“For so many decades now, we’ve been putting out every single little fire, even when it didn’t pose a danger to anybody,” Eisen says. “What that does is create a bigger risk for a bigger fire.”

Eisen has worked as a journalist since the 1980s, when she was a field producer and on-camera reporter for Canada AM and W5. However, she says her passion was telling long-form stories, and that led her to a career directing hour-long documentary specials. Into the Fire marks her fourth special for The Nature of Things in five years.

In these non-fiction films, she has covered topics such as animal intelligence, heroin addiction, the Olympics and twin science. The latter subject was featured in Two of a Kind, which Eisen made as a tribute to her twin sister, journalist Linda Lewis, who died in 2013.

“Even though my background’s in journalism and not science, I tend to immerse myself obsessively in a topic once I’m interested,” she says. “I just go with my gut on what I find interesting, and hope (broadcasters) think the public will be interested, too.” n