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Fire Wars

Frost filming With flames licking up a stand of black spruce nearby, NOVA director of photography Jon Else lets the camera roll in the Alaskan backcountry.
The Producer's Story
Or, How I Came to Break the First Rule of Wildland Firefighting

by Judith Vecchione

"What's going to happen?"

It's one of those obvious questions a producer always asks. You film the person answering the question, making a prediction. Then you keep filming, and you and the audience find out if the prediction comes true. It can be a wonderful set-up for the drama and tension of the story.

The only problem was that, very early in the filming of the NOVA program "Fire Wars," it became clear that one thing no one in the fire profession will do is predict anything. It's almost the first rule of wildland firefighting. "What do you think this fire season will be like?" you ask. "When will you get control of this fire?" "Can you stop the fire here?" No answers. Even in the middle of a planned fire experiment, you might ask, "Okay, today went well, so what do you think tomorrow will be like?" No answers.

Filming the Hotshots Arrowhead Hotshot Bryan Baxter demonstrates how to break down a collapsible shovel.
The people I asked were not being difficult. In fact, some of them, such as Brit Rosso, Superintendent of the California-based Arrowhead Hotshots, one of 70 crack wildland firefighting units in the United States, were incredibly helpful to our film project. Early on, Rosso agreed to allow NOVA to accompany him and his crew on the fireline. This meant he was taking on responsibility for our safety in the field.

The lack of answers was also not due to ignorance. With the help of detailed scientific studies and new computer models, fire managers know a lot about fires and fire behavior. This knowledge reaches down to the firelines. It's common now, for example, to see firefighting crews like the Arrowheads using handheld Global Positioning System devices in the wilderness to correlate fire conditions they see on the ground with information coming from helicopter pilots flying overhead.

My sense is that fire professionals shy away from predictions for two reasons. The first is, as with many people in high-risk professions, wildland firefighters share a kind of cultural modesty, an unwillingness to look as if they are boasting. They are more Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff" than Tom Cruise in "Top Gun."

The other reason is that fire managers know only too well how utterly unpredictable wildfire can be, despite their best knowledge.

Young wildland firefighter His face a portrait of quiet determination, a young wildland firefighter hoses down a patch of tundra during a prescribed burn in Alaska.
Burning the bush
The depth of that "best knowledge" was one of the most astonishing parts of filming "Fire Wars." Early in the project I went up in a helicopter as Dave Dash and Skip Thyssen—the burn boss and ignition specialist, respectively, for a major fire experiment called Frostfire—looked over the landscape they would be burning. As the helicopter circled the 2,200-acre watershed near Fairbanks, Alaska, Dash and Thyssen talked with remarkable precision about their ignition choices.

Looking down over the complex landscape, with its mosaic of black spruce and hardwoods, uphill areas and down, wet and dry, they pointed to one tree after another, naming them as if the trees were old friends, plotting what pattern of fire they could produce to get the right results for the scientists while at the same time maintaining control of the prescribed burn. Out of this flight and numerous other studies would emerge a detailed plan, one that would culminate, they hoped, in a safe and productive burn.

Walking the fire line Lugging chain saws, Pulaskis, and other gear, a crew of wildland firefighters hikes along a firebreak prior to the Frostfire burn.
All prescribed burns start with just such a plan. Called a "prescription," it lays out the exact conditions required before a fire can be set. Prescriptions are extremely finely drawn. At Frostfire, winds had to be coming only from a certain direction, to minimize smoke hazards in the few populated areas nearby. They had to be blowing hard enough to carry the fire but not so hard as to make it uncontrollable or to keep the ignition helicopters from flying. Humidity, too, had to be within limits: dry enough to burn, wet enough to keep the fires from sparking up.

Other factors were even less predictable. For example, even though weather conditions had to be dry at the watershed, they also had to be wet enough across the region so that huge fires wouldn't be burning elsewhere in the state. Because wildfires would take priority over a science burn, crews would be pulled and reallocated, and there wouldn't be enough firefighters left to set and control the burn at Frostfire.

Continue: Never predict...

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