Here’s the pitch. The Apprentice is tanking. We might imagine that the executive producer, moving on to bigger challenges, is desperate for another vehicle, desperate for a win. A huge win.
Sir, we say, all we need to do is just try to solve the fire problem. Even if we don’t win, we’ve got guaranteed audience attention. Picture this: fire on the horizon, our forests and habitats and recreation grounds (not to mention our houses) just hours from becoming a bag of charcoal for the worst picnic you can imagine. Plus, solving the fire problem is the safest way to sneak the phrase climate change back into circulation by calling it what in reality it is. And to prepare not just for the future but for now — because now, with fires burning outside of our experiences and our capabilities to manage, climate change is a climate emergency.
To translate the fire problem into a reality TV show is not so far from the reality on the ground today. From Chile to Kansas, wildfires are breaking records (and in the NY Times, an extension agent in Kansas says, of the wildfires and lackluster response, “This is our Hurricane Katrina.”) As in any drama, scripted or not, we have heroes — those in Nomex, the fire fighters and fire responders, plus a supporting cast of white-coated fire scientists, fire thinkers, and fire managers and land managers (also usually in Nomex). And we have super-hero tools — backpack pumps, chainsaws, an armada of flame-extinguishing hardware in the air, from jumbo jets to single-engine tankers, from helicopters to drones (someday), not to mention satellites that offer near-real-time tracking of lightning, wildfire heat signatures, weather and climate.
And villains? Might it be so wrong to prop a black hat on developers and short-sighted leaders who allow unprotected (and sometimes unprotect-able) housing in a fire-prone landscape. And on those who’ve manipulated key fire-management procedures and processes — by threatening budget cuts to satellite technology, and delaying the hiring of key firefighting positions in the US? As in any comedy, there are leaders advised by fools and clowns, plus the risk that one or all will make mistakes that are, in reality, far more hazardous than the mere trips and pratfalls of comedy.
On “Wildfire: Our US Reality” (and a global franchise might offer “Bushfire: AU Burning”), we might begin with Scene 1: Invite a team of fire experts each week to solve the Fire Problem and to Prevent the Worst “Not-on-my-Watch” Outcome, by identifying the Values at Risk and trying to resolve them.
Scene 2: Organize Team Alpha to implement a strategy. You have 24 hours. Though in many cases, the fire (Scene 3) is only two hours from reaching at least one of the Values at Risk. So which do your protect. We close with Scene 4: Do you solve for X (ensure crew safety), or Y (evacuate citizens), or Z (save houses). Oh, and don’t forget our key mission — to solve for long-term landscape resilience amid a climate chaos that most species (including Homo sapiens) have too little experience much less the sapiens to face.
Life’s challenges, we’re reminded by reality TV and reality alike, are shared and share-able, solvable if we can accept the physical nature of fire (fire, after all, is simply a physics problem) and move beyond the perplexing and the frustrating social conflicts. The solution will come if we learn to honor the story as much or more than the story-teller. Solutions are thwarted by the selfishness and self-centeredness of those who focus only on being the winner; solutions are expedited by those whose foresight and goodwill and humor seek a global and communal win.
The winner in the show we’re pitching would be the team and the community and the landscape, demonstrating together that our most resilient solution to the fire problem is solving not for I but for Us.
We have the tools to solve for X, but perhaps not the shared wisdom. As this issue of Wildfire comes together, we’ve sought to add a few new tools, many thousands of words of real wisdom and some key images to inform the reality-TV script that we’re living each fire season.
We begin with an update of the “Problem Fire” concept, originally defined by Stephen Pyne in 1982 and updated here by Pyne and Brad Washa for the 21st century.
We share a vision by a global cast of fire researchers on how fire modeling might help us work with a wider forecast cushion and thus more safely, and offer a research update on surviving a tender/ engine burnover from Australia, an After Action review on Australia’s fire season, plus a variety of news updates, a weather meter review. And we feature a few cover images from the early issues of Wildfire Magazine — to intro our regular updates on Wildfire’s history, impact and future. And all of these images and stories combine to tell the very real story — the days of real work by real firefighters who remind us that it’s our decision when to burn and how to burn, and how to respond safely when the ignition is unplanned.
A few years back I was cold-called by a producer’s assistant who was conducting research for a potential reality show. She wanted to know about wildfire and firefighters. They were thinking of a show, the true story of firefighters, fighting fire. I shared a few stories about the fire problem and firefighting. She asked about my colleagues, our community, with a particular focus on our conflicts.
And I shared how much we learned from each other, how much each of us relied on the other’s support. How the shared mission allowed us to work through our peeves and peccadilloes, and when it was time to respond we acted thoughtfully, calmly, as a team united by good, hard work and a shared mission.
I never got a call back. Perhaps I described the end result, the order that we make from chaos, with more clarity than the narrative, the very dramatic solutions we craft on the fly. But the show — our reality, which is both a great show and real — must go on, and does go on, regardless of where the camera is pointing.
And so we work to solve for Problem X — the Fire Problem, and the camera may be framed on us the way Camus re-framed our focus on Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill, again and again, since this ever-repeating task is our reality, part reality-TV and part dark comedy — Sisyphus meets Groundhog Day — with the fields and hills and mountains on fire, one day into the next.
Now that’s a reality show we could watch, if it wasn’t so much like our day (and night) jobs.