Fire-Writing: Get It Right

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I was a professional firefighter for twenty-four years. And like anyone that has worked in a specific profession and seen it depicted in film or book, you sometimes cringe knowing it gets more things wrong than right, and throwing a red flag, calling a Bullshit penalty. I’ve seen fire and the fighting of it in film or book done so badly–defying physics and reality with such uncaring stupidity–it lifts me so completely out of my suspension of disbelief that it near ruins the whole story for me. Now you may say that it’s a pet peeve of mine born out of my very specific experience and that I should just go with the flow, but it’s my belief that none firefighter readers are smarter than that, and have seen a structure fire or two or experienced one directly, that when they read or see a film depicting weird fire their subconscious knows it’s wrong and they immediately see “Hollywood” or the ignorant writer. Fire is a scary thing, and fighting it, or being in close proximity, is way more deadly than shown in fiction. Just doing a little research could bring the intensiveness of reality into a story and make for much greater suspense.

That being said, about a year ago a wonderful writer friend of mine was working on a story scene involving a structure fire and she asked me to look over the chapter to give her advice. (She also suggested I write a primer for writers on fire, but I just haven’t gotten around to it). I did so and wrote a detailed overview of what she wrote, which is what you will read (I hope) below. Though it is specific to her scene, it holds many general facts that I believe will do a lot of writers good to enhance their blazing scene and story when depicting a fire.

By the way, she did very well. ๐Ÿ™‚

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housefireTHE FIRE ITSELF (hmm sounds like a good title): Ok, Fire Behavior (yes, it has a behavior, a rather sociopathic one). Having no previous knowledge of the burning building, here is what I understand from what you described…Two story building (wood house? apartment building?), no other structures nearby but with trees around it, and the fire started on the first floor. I assume the latter one because you describe fire in the main hall of the first floor. If the fire had start on the second floor and hadn’t been burning that long, say 5 to 10 minutes (is it in town or the outskirts?) the first floor would likely not be involved as fully as you describe. Since it is, the fire started first floor and moved up to the second. Heat, smoke, and fire follow the least path of resistance when spreading, spreading faster up in a widening V-Pattern, traveling down at a much slower rate. Remember that rule. All that is hinging on the assumption it wasn’t arson. Then we have a whole different scenario.

Your character looks through the door window and sees flames. That’s good. Your fire has vented (has moved to the exterior) itself on the second story (the higher the better) going out the windows, I’m presuming. When a fire vents, it causes a chimney effect, pulling all available air, including smoke, up through the structure to be released at the venting point. Therefore, the first floor is being cleared of smoke from the upward pull, making the fire clearly visible. If the venting hadn’t happened, the smoke would be trapped and building incredibly fast, filling every space as it builds down (remember before mentioned rule, with this addition: smoke rises, and mushrooms out, building down if trapped). Such conditions make the fire hard to see, most of the time impossible unless you’re very close to it and that’s a scary and deadly place to be!

THE FIRE SCENE DURING AND AFTER: Because there can be a wide range of behavior for firefighters, I can’t say what you described is wrong, or rather, not possible. Training across the nation is standardized and federally imposed, but because of lack of training on a department from budget cuts, or lack of experience, (Professional firefighters and rural volunteers can fight fire differently), sheer stupidity, or crazy bravado, firefighter behavior can vary. All I can say about the firefighters you describe is what a bunch of dumbasses! Anytime firefighters make an initial entry into a burning building with fire clearly visible, whether to recon or fight the fire, they don’t go in without a fully charged hose line with them to protect themselves if anything. The two guys going in are idiots not doing so. The firefighters spraying the side of the house aren’t doing much good with that! The damn fire is inside! And if those two that stick a hose in a window they would be endangering the two inside by possibly pushing fire, heat, and steam onto them! Time for live fire training for the crew. Professionally, what they would be doing, the two going inside would take a hose (ya don’t go to war without a weapon) with them to assess and possibly attack the fire at its seat (where it began) for an interior attack. And the two outside, would pull another line (if available) to cover any structures too close to the fully involved building (the tree attack was logical), or spreading around the building looking for escaped occupants, or those they can rescue with a ladder and any power they can turn off or gas meters to shut down.

One small thing, that conversation between the firefighters would more likely be a radio transmission from the officer of the crew (and initially in charge of the scene) to dispatch and all responding units as to conditions. I suggest adding, in reference to the lack of access to possible victims, “second floor fully involved”.

Because of the level of involvement of the building, the firefighters would be going into a defensive mode (rescue, protect structures nearby, and limit spread) instead of offensive (rescue, interior attack). Fully engulfed means it’s a goner. Any possible live victims inside to rescue changes things somewhat, and makes firefighters more aggressive.

THE AFTERMATH: You did a good job there, the quiet and the breeze. There is often popping noises as wood or warm objects cool down and retract. Because of the amount of water usually poured onto a fire of this extent, the dripping of water is everywhere. The air is thick with humidity and very close. Makes for one creepy scene. One cool atmospheric thing to think about is air temperature…if its cold outside, there will be steam rising about where things were hottest, making a light fog inside that usually rises.

interior w flashlightssmall

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A few more things:

Movies and TV are the worst at depicting fire. Structure fires produce a LOT of dense multicolored smoke. A clean fire is what happens on your stove or heater when all the fuel is being consumed.

A free burning interior fire puts off large amounts of toxic smoke in an atmosphere that can be around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. One breath can drop a person like a bullet to the brain. So showing someone, a firefighter or civilian, running into a burning structure and into a blazing roomย  without protective gear and breathing apparatus to rescue someone is…Total. Bullshit.

Here’s just a taste of reality taken from a firefighters POV…

A naturally caused fire (a fallen candle, electrical, etc) does not jump around to multiple spots burning here or there. It spreads exponentially from one spot, becoming one complete consuming monster. I loved the television series, Rescue Me, mostly for the humor and the pretty close depiction of firefighters and how they interact. But when they had fire scenes, and they walked down halls or through rooms without their masks on, walking past this little fire and that little fire (and without putting them out; one does not want the enemy coming up from behind and blocking your exit) till they opened the door to the BIG fire, well, I could only do a facepalm. Arsonists will sometimes set multiple fires in a structure, producing fires in various places, and that’s about the only time a firefighter will see that.

Well, that’s enough from me now in that subject. I hope it was enlightening to my writer friends out there. If you like and want to know more, just post a question and I’ll try to answer it. Or if your writing a scene involving fire or firefighters and want my advice, I’ll be more than happy to take a look at it and burn it to ashes!

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9 thoughts on “Fire-Writing: Get It Right

  1. Wow, very informative. Thanks! Question: how accurate was the movie Backdraft with Kurt Russel. I remember being struck by how the experienced fire fighters spoke of the fire the way you just did…as if it were alive, almost as if it had the consciousness of a sociopath.

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    • Thanks Wulfie. As for Backdraft, it’s been many years since I saw it, but I do recall myself and my FF buddies being very excited about it, and then being very disappointed when we saw it. I remember laughing and groaning as Kurt Russel ran into fiery buildings with his jacket open, helmetless, and without breathing apparatus, to save the trapped victim and walking away without a cough, or sunburn, let alone coming out alive. That kind of action would get one fired for endangering themselves and his brothers, that is, if they lived that long. And no one would rise to Kurt Russell’s character rank being such a lone wolf and reckless dumbass. As for the fire itself, it was a bit tame compared to real life fire. And believe me, when your in a room with it, it does seem to be a voracious monster ready to eat you alive, waiting for the smallest of mistakes.

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  2. I like that you were so thorough with giving your friend expert feedback. Your overview was very informative! I especially like the message of this post; most writers (beginners, particularly) neglect to fact check and wouldn’t even think about the possibility of asking an expert. Experts are almost always far more valuable than a good resource book or website, because they provide emotions, jargon and its proper use, and the limitations of the field. Sadly, its true that popular media isn’t always accurate (read as: hardly ever), but they know they aren’t, and only do it to progress a story and increase drama. My personal pet peeve, as someone who works and has been educated in the computer graphic design field, is always crime dramas that push the limitations of digital images. I don’t care how skilled you are or how powerful your computer, you cannot make pixels appear out of nowhere to give you a perfect image of your perp, you cannot take a picture shot through water on a cell phone and edit it to produce a viable image of a perp (I’m looking at you “Bones”), and you cannot zoom in to a clear shot of a license plate off a security camera in a parking garage, hit ‘sharpen’, and suddenly have readable numbers.

    Conclusion: Good post! Hopefully from reading it, others will learn to take a leaf from your friend’s book and seek out experts to offer advice on their own writing!

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    • I couldn’t agree more with what you said about popular media and how they simply want to move the story forward with an action set piece. But they seem to think that their audience is none to sharp and they will totally buy into it, when all they’re doing is risking the believability of the story. I’m not in your field, but I see the same things you do and realize what bull it is. And when their computer experts are working the computer, all they do is type, bringing up programs and data without a hint of a mouse!

      And thanks sorensendash for enjoying my post. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. Tim, I applaud your contribution. I am very proud that you are stepping up to inform those in need. Maybe someone will take notice and realistically create a work that doesn’t make a firefighter/reader throw the book (or “ereader”) into the hearth. You are one of my everlasting heroes! Love you man!!!

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  4. Hi Tim,

    I’m sure you’ve got a copy of ‘The Wrong Way Down’ and there are two intense fire scenes that I thought were done smart. I’d love to hear your professional critique on both scenes. I would happily send you an e-copy of the book if you don’t have one. “Have your people talk to my people. Let’s get it done.”

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    • I took a look on my Kindle and don’t seem to have it. I believe you sent it to me a while back, but I think it’s on my old computer. So go ahead, Jake, send away! Would be happy to take a look and critique the shit out of it. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And I love getting free books from my fav writer buds!

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