Tales from the Industry XXXVII – Firestarter

Well, Wednesday was unexpectedly exhausting, but quite a day. I intended to do a step by step report as I went along, but in the end we were too busy for me to do that, so instead I’ll give you a summary from memory. My instructions were to meet at 5:00am (yes, I know, 5:00am!) in the Temecula area with the film crew and a senior representative from the fire department. This meant leaving the night before and staying in a hotel nearby, so that I only had to get up at 4:30am instead of the two hours or more I’d have needed to otherwise. The meet went well (even with the slight confusion over two strip malls on opposite sides of the street both with a Starbucks, the meeting point…) and we set off in two vehicles into the brush.

Our goal was a particular area where we were going to take part in a key operation of the forestry and fire department (and related services the names of which I’ve forgotten) – a controlled or “prescribed” burn. The burn will act as a rather excellent analogue of a much larger issue of scientific interest, the main subject of the episode. I’ll let you actually watch the episode to learn more, so that I don’t spill the beans.

I say take part since we were not only going to film it (in 3D), but I would be – in my role as a sort of host of this segment – interviewing the Battalion Chief (Julie Hutchinson) about the burn, and then helping burn some of it myself! It’s certainly not every day one gets to help burn 100 acres – safely and legally!

It was a huge amount of fun, right from the morning briefing (6:00am), the borrowing of odd bits of safety equipment from various members of the crew so that our crew, and yours truly, were safely kitted out, to being instructed on camera by one of the fire chiefs how to use the drip torch (there’s one on the left) to set little pools of fire in the brush the required distance apart to get the required burn rate…

It was hugely fun, and instructive. I hope it ends up being a useful (and similarly fun and instructive) piece of the episode, for the viewer. One of the most shocking things about all this for me was how fast this stuff burns. The brush is brown and dry and even though dripping with morning dew, it burns like crazy. It was also just great to see the camaraderie in the group of various officers, as well as the professionalism. It makes you grateful that these guys are watching out for all of us, in an area where at this time of year it seems that everywhere is covered in dry brush, and where I now find myself amazed that the whole region is not on fire, altogether, right now, given how easily and fast the main material burns…

Here’s an interesting thing I did not know. A lot of control of the fire involves having lots of people there working on digging breaks and burning various appropriately picked parts of the available area to guide it, and so forth. These are techniques employed in fighting a fire too, and so this is not just good for rejuvenation and control of a given part of the land, but good practice. But the key thing is to have lots of people. Well, it turns out that a lot of the crew come from programs that rotate convicted prisoners into the system. They are brought in using special trucks and work alongside the career fire professionals, obeying certain protocols and rules of engagement. It is rather interesting, and, I learned vital for the program. You can tell the difference by looking for the orange overalls (and helmets) that distinguish them from the yellow of the others. (And yes, amusingly, the only spare appropriate helmet they had for me was orange… there was a white one, but it was a “structure” helmet – one for entering buildings – which would have been silly to have on camera for brush fire discussion). It is great to see one of the (many) methods by which the convicted can actively give back to society with this sort of crucial work…

I finally learned what “containment” means, in this context. You know when you hear that a fire is a certain percent contained? It turns out that they do indeed mean that they have formed that percentage of a perimeter (either by burning the fuel supply or similar control) around the area containing the fire. Seems obvious, in retrospect, but I can imagine definitions involving areas, and not perimeters. Anyway…

We shot some more after the burn was over, with me answering some questions to camera about various astronomy issues. It was getting up to lunchtime and so this last bit turned out to be rather difficult simply because there’s nothing worse than noontime sun for making rather awful light for photography. We wrapped after a while and I headed back to Los Angeles, exhausted.

Sadly, I was forced to cancel a second shoot the next day involving a specially built see-saw and some twin gymnasts. Sounds like another fascinating analogy for this episode, conceived by Savas Georgalis, the writer/director of the episode* (we’ve worked together on fun shoots before, if you recall from other posts… remember Death Valley last year in July?, or the shoots at various sporting locations at USC?). I’m intrigued too, and would have loved to have done it but I had to decline as there was (as far as I understand) a scheduling misunderstanding and I’d made dinner promises that I did not want to break. Happily, they were able to get another of my co-regulars on the show to fill in. I’m confident she’ll do an excellent job and so the science will still get out there, which is the important aspect..


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