Sunday, May 4, 2014

And the Number One Mistake is…

Last week I presented a workshop at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in which I dispelled my top myths about firefighting. Topping the list of errors I see in movies, on television, and in written fiction: the depiction of fire and how it behaves.

Structure Fire
(Photo by Kpahor via Wikimedia Commons)
Most people have never been firefighters, or experienced fire up close and personal beyond a barbecue, fireplace, or campfire. Today’s society is all about the digital world, so what people see in TV shows and movies all too often becomes their reality. Those misconceptions about fire then make their way to the written page.

The problem is that Hollywood distorts how it depicts fire, firefighters, and firefighting. The reasons for doing so actually make a lot of sense. Take those scenes of fire inside buildings where you can see everything that’s going on. Story is all about conflict and drama, but if the viewer can’t see what’s going on, if the shot was obscured by smoke as would likely happen in a real fire, then the dramatic effects of the firefight or rescue would be lost.

Fire also poses safety concerns for anyone working on a set, so directors turn to special effects crews to provide spectacular visuals without hurting or killing anyone. These kinds of special effects often utilize natural gas or propane piped into a set so that it can be controlled. Those kinds of fires don’t put off a lot of smoke and they behave differently than a free-burning fire in a structure.

Sometimes fire and smoke are inserted into a scene digitally using computers. Nice and safe, but usually not very realistic.

Now let me say up front that the subject of fire dynamics is extensive. How a fire ignites, grows, and behaves depends on the fuel(s) involved, available oxygen, whether the fire is confined to a structure (and how that structure is configured and ventilated) or in a forest, weather conditions, the level of fire suppression involved at any given moment, and so on.

However, there are just some basic concepts that seem to elude writers of all levels and genres. I’ll also tackle fire behavior in future posts, but here are some quick tips to get you started.

1. Fire is hot. Seems like a pretty silly statement, right? But stop and think about the movies and shows you’ve seen in which a firefighter carries a child to safety through a raging inferno with no apparent harm to the kid. It may look good on the screen, but it’s not realistic.

Interior fire temperatures can range from 100°-500°F, with flashover or backdraft situations pushing temperatures upward of 2000°F. Generally speaking, modern structural firefighting protective gear can withstand temperatures a little higher than 500°F, but not for extended periods of time. In contrast, human skin can blister at less than 160°F. If you’ve ever burned yourself on a hot iron, cooking pot, or oven door, you know how little it takes.

2. Fires produce smoke and toxic gases. The amount and color of smoke will vary depending on the material that’s burning, how much oxygen the fire is getting, etc. Toxicity of gases also varies with the fuel being burned, but carbon monoxide is pretty much a given with any fire.

3. Structure fires today, especially residential fires, burn hotter and faster than they did 20 or 50 years ago. This is due to changes in building materials (from turn-of-the-century heavy timber to lightweight construction techniques); the amount of synthetic materials in modern households; and, quite simply, the volumes of stuff people have in their homes nowadays.

Writers, if you want to accurately portray fire and firefighting in your stories, do your homework. Go to YouTube and search for firefighting videos, especially those from firefighter helmet cameras. Use Google. Go to the library. Talk to your local firefighters.

Your readers will appreciate you for getting it right.

No comments:

Post a Comment