PBS // 2011 // 53 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 18th, 2011
A damaged environment demonstrating an extraordinary capacity for healing itself.
In February 2009, a series of brushfires spread across the Australian state of Victoria to devastating effect. 173 people were killed, more than 400 were injured, massive sections of forest were destroyed and countless animals were killed (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated that over 1 million animals lost their lives). This tragedy is now commonly known as "Black Saturday," a brushfire that delivered a higher death toll than any other in Australian history. Obviously many humans lost a great deal due to this tragedy, but PBS's Nature installment Survivors of the Firestorm focuses almost exclusively on the effect Black Saturday had on wildlife in the area.
Brushfires are always devastating to wildlife, but these brushfires had the distinction of taking place in an area loaded with endangered species and particularly essential plant life. One area was the only known habitat of the rare Leadbeater's Possum, forcing emergency measures to be taken in order to ensure that these beloved animals would not become extinct. We observe as scientists set up feeding areas throughout this burned-out forest area; then observe via night vision cameras as the possums reluctantly begin to visit the feeding areas at night.
A great deal of time is spent simply observing the medical procedures the animals are put through, as creatures of all sorts are stitched up, placed on oxygen machines, given splints, and generally tended to. The koalas in particular were horrifically affected by the fire; one out of every five koalas rescued is so horribly burned that they have to be put down. However, there are surprising success stories which accompany the tragedy: some of the koalas adapt surprisingly well to new environments when they're taken to brand-new forest areas. This comes as a surprise due to the fact that many koalas can be quite picky about where they live: not only do they stick to eating eucalyptus leaves; they will often refuse to eat the leaves from trees outside of their usual area.
We also spend a bit of time with the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, gliders and all sorts of birds, learning how each group was affected differently based on their specific way of life and survival instincts. It's compelling stuff, though the documentary occasionally struggles to find bright moments in the midst of all this tragedy (a story about a magpie singing in a burned-out forest is more haunting than hopeful). Even though the documentary attempts to accentuate the positive during its closing moments, Survivors of the Firestorm is unmistakably a downer. Even so, it ranks as an above average installment of Nature.
Survivors of the Firestorm arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080i/1.85:1 transfer. There's perhaps a smaller amount of breathtaking visuals than usual on this episode, as we're frequently focused on the nitty-gritty details of animal surgery and the misery of a burnt-out forest. Even so, the level of detail is exceptional and there are still some moments of natural beauty which really shine. Black levels are impressive, too. Things get a little shaky when the camera moves at a considerable speed, but that doesn't happen very often. Audio is fine, though the music is a bit more spare than usual for a documentary of this sort (almost approaching minimalism at times). The narration (courtesy of biologist Chris Morgan) sounds clear and robust. There are no extras included on the disc.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 53 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated