BEVERLY HILLS

Ken Burns just never tires of delving into American history and plumbing its depths.

Now, the prolific filmmaker has turned his attention to what he calls "the greatest man-made ecological disaster" the nation has ever experienced. "The Dust Bowl," a two-part, four-hour documentary, premieres on PBS Nov. 18.

"It's a cautionary tale," Burns told journalists gathered here for TV's summer press tour. "It's an epic of human pain and suffering, but also the story of heroic perseverance."

"The Dust Bowl" chronicles the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts and unleashed a series of massive and deadly dust storms -- so-called black blizzards -- upon the region.

It was "an apocalypse that is so hard to fathom and comprehend," Burns said.

Burns and fellow filmmaker Dayton Duncan said they had been considering a documentary on the Dust Bowl for years and finally dove into the project, sensing an urgency to work on it before aging survivors passed away.

One of the survivors featured in the film is Cal Crabill, who lived in Colorado during the Dust Bowl until his family fled to Southern California. He grew up in Burbank and later attended UC Berkeley. Crabill recalled being out on his horse as an 8-year-old when a huge dust storm enveloped him.

"I just assumed it was the end of the world," he recalled.

Duncan said there's an important lesson within the Dust Bowl that still carries resonance today.

"We believe we can ignore the limits of nature if it suits our purposes," he said "... It's an arrogance that we are prone to -- that we know better than nature, or that nature is going to change its ways."