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Fire Wars

Helitorch A helicopter equipped with a helitorch releases burning gasoline as part of the Frostfire test.
The Producer's Story
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Never predict...
In the area of Alaska where the burn was to take place, all these factors gave the scientists and fire professionals a very narrow window of opportunity—just a few weeks in July. Before that, it would be too wet; after, too dry. After more than a decade of planning, the scientists had failed to get the right prescription for two summers in a row. So when I asked permission for NOVA to film the burn, they said yes, but they warned me again and again that they couldn't predict whether or not it would happen this year. "Well, what's your best guess?" I asked. No answers.

Even after the order was given to proceed and the burn got underway, things remained unpredictable. On one day, for example, they needed to do aerial ignition, starting the fire from a helicopter. The plan was to use so-called "ping pong balls" of potassium permanganate, which is used as an oxidizer; as they leave the helicopter, the balls are injected with a chemical that ignites them as they fall.

The vegetation in that area of the watershed was too wet, however, and the flames kept going out. So the ignition team flew the helicopter back to base, unstrapped the ping pong machine and hooked on a helitorch, a kind of giant flamethrower that spits out burning, jellied gasoline and gives a much stronger ignition. The helitorch malfunctioned. It was back to base to get another helitorch, which worked.

By then it was late afternoon. If we had been in the mid-latitudes, Dash and company would have had to shut down for the day, as the sun would have soon vanished below the horizon, and the relative humidity would have started to rise out of prescription. In the land of the midnight sun, however, particularly in July close to the solstice, the sun never really sets. So the burn could still go forward—and, fortunately for us and for the 65 scientists waiting to gather research data during the burn, it did.

Smoky crag Swaddled in smoke, USDA Forest Service Research's David Sandberg, one of the principal investigators for Frostfire, clambers up a crag for a shot of the surrounding forest.
...always prepare
It was an early and helpful lesson for us, the filmmakers: So much can go wrong in a fire that only the foolish would make predictions. Preparation, alertness, and flexibility are key for the firefighters. After Frostfire, we realized that this was the way we would need to approach all our shoots.

We prepared. The first and most important preparation was putting together a "red-carded crew." Our film crew—director of photography Jon Else, soundman John Haptas, and assistant cameraman Lincoln Else—took the full wildland firefighting course with other rookie firefighters. It was a week's work in classes ending with a fitness test. Called the "pack test," it proved they could walk three miles wearing heavy fire boots and carrying a pack weighing 45 pounds in under 45 minutes. Haptas turned in the fastest walk of his class, and they all were certified to fight fires. This gave the fire managers confidence that they could trust the NOVA team in the dangerous situations we needed to film for "Fire Wars." And it enabled us to get close enough to the fires that we could feel the heat of the flames on our skin and get singed by flying embers.

More preparation: We got the right gear, starting with the wildland firefighter's characteristic green pants and yellow shirt made out of Nomex, the trade name for a widely used, fire-resistant synthetic fabric. Helmets, goggles, leather gloves, and proper firefighting boots (all leather, six inches above the ankle). A regulation fireshelter pack to hang on our belts, to protect us if we got caught in a fire.

Finally, we bought ourselves all-cotton or all-wool socks and underwear, as we were instructed to do. For people who have never fought fire, the idea of being told what to wear for underwear may seem loony, but there is a good reason: A fire's heat could fuse the plastic in cotton/lycra clothes to your body, a deeply unpleasant thought. Finding no-lycra socks was hard; finding no-lycra, no-underwire bras almost impossible. Salespeople looked at me as if I had some weird fetish or phobia.

Fire in the forest Firefighters set this 2,000-acre backfire in a failed attempt to stop the Clear Creek fire, a blaze in the summer of 2000 that eventually consumed 208,000 acres.
Breaking the rule
With all this preparation, however, there was one thing we couldn't be sure of—the fire season. We had to make the prediction that no one else would. We had to guess at the upcoming fire season's weather, and we knew that, on public television budgets, we couldn't afford to guess wrong.

At the start of the year 2000, director Kirk Wolfinger and I put ourselves out on the line with NOVA's executive producer, Paula Apsell. "This is the season to film," we told her. "There have been two La Niña winters in a row, unusually dry seasons that have left the forests out West even more flammable. It's going to be a big season, with lots of fires."

We could have been totally wrong.

We weren't. The year 2000 season of fire was enormous, with some six million acres burning. And as Arrowhead Hotshot Matt Snider says in the film, it made a summer full of magical memories that we could share with our viewers in "Fire Wars."

Crew In Kentucky for a "Fire Wars" shoot, Judith Vecchione poses with father-and-son camera crew, Jon and Lincoln Else.
Judith Vecchione is an executive producer and producer in WGBH's National Productions Department, with credits that range from "Vietnam: A Television History" and "Eyes on the Prize" to "The CHINA Trilogy" and "Eleanor Roosevelt." Since beginning the "Fire Wars" project four years ago, she has become what advisor Stephen Pyne calls a "pyro-mantic," amassing a small collection of antique Smokey Bear pins, bookmarks, and mugs. Like Robert Frost, she says, "I hold with those who favor fire."

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The Producer's Story | The World on Fire | Outfitting Wildland Firefighters
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