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How Hollywood gets wildfires all wrong — much to the frustration of firefighters

A still from the CBS drama series 'Fire Country'
Bettina Strauss/CBS
A still from the CBS drama series 'Fire Country'

The new CBS drama series Fire Country, about a group of prisoners turned volunteer firefighters in Northern California, is aflame with the raging pyrotechnics and human melodrama that audiences have come to expect from pop culture takes on wildfires and the people who bravely tackle them.

The show was the highest-ranked TV series when it debuted in October and continues to attract millions of viewers.

But despite its popularity with the public, Fire Country hasn't been a big hit with firefighters.

"It's just another traumatized Hollywood production," Eugene, Oregon-based firefighter Megan Bolten told NPR.

Fire Country executive producer Tony Phelan said he understands the pushback.

"But we are not making a documentary," said Phelan. "And so there are certain compromises that we make for dramatic purposes."

The disconnect between pop culture and real life

The frustration firefighters feel highlights the disconnect between the portrayal of wildfires in pop culture and the realities of wildfire response in a time of accelerated climate change.

Part of the issue is that movies and TV shows about wildfires haven't changed much since they first blazed across our screens in the middle of the last century.

Melodramatic scenes of heroic, cleft-chinned firefighters charging fearlessly at enemy fires were a thing back in the 1940s and 1950s in movies like The Forest Rangers and Red Skies of Montana.

And they're still very much a thing today, in movies like Only the Brave and Those Who Wish Me Dead, and TV series such as Fire Country and Fire Chasers.

Firefighter Bolten said it's high time Hollywood let go of these exaggerated, oversimplified and often inaccurate clichés.

Red Skies Of Montana, lobbycard, 1952.
/ LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images
Red Skies Of Montana, lobbycard, 1952.

"Its aim is to entertain more than it is to inform," Bolten said.

Instead, Bolten said, Hollywood should share messages about things like the usefulness of controlled burns to clear out overgrown brush, the public's role in wildfire prevention, and how climate change is turning wildlands across the world into tinderboxes.

"Introducing the complexity of the conversation that's actually happening in fire and climate change and fuels management would be a huge help," Bolten said.

The glaring absence of climate change in scripted dramas

According to a recent study from the climate change storytelling consultancy Good Energy and the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, less than 3% of the more than 37,000 analyzed movie and TV scripts written between 2016 and 2020 made any reference to climate change.

"There is a glaring absence of climate change in scripted media," said Good Energy associate director of climate research and consulting Alisa Petrosova. "And that's a problem because stories set the societal conditions necessary for change. There's a huge power in linking climate change to natural disaster."

However, scenes featuring discussions about climate change or fire prevention and control methods like a homeowner raking leaves off their lawn or a firefighter digging a ditch, don't exactly make for scintillating screen-time.

"Where's the action? Where's the drama?" said Arizona State University historian Steve Pyne, who studies the portrayal of wildfires in mass entertainment. "It's very easy to tell the disaster and war story. It's much harder to tell the story of preventative stuff."

Pyne said despite the dramaturgical challenges, the entertainment industry has a responsibility to get the messaging right, because of its enormous reach.

"Most people are not reading policy statements," Pyne said. "They're not reading the Journal of Ecology. They will get it in popular forms."

A spark of hope

A few entertainment offerings are leading the way, integrating important — if somewhat less dramatic — topics like fire prevention and climate change into storylines.

Good Energy's Petrosova points to a scene from the 2018 movie Roma involving a forest fire.

"The servants line up in a bucket chain to put out the fire while the rich family members sip their wine and take in the spectacle," Petrosova said. "So there's this highlight on injustice and who has to bear the brunt of the labor of the climate crisis and fires."

Fire Country also delivers moments of climate change-focused clarity.

For example, in episode seven, the local priest, Father Pascal (played by Barclay Hope), unsuccessfully tries to chat up fire chief Vince Leone (Billy Burke) in order to get out of paying a fine for not clearing the wood around his property.

This might not be the most smoldering scene ever written in television history. But executive producer Phelan said moments like this one matter.

"We certainly have a responsibility to tell people about what it means to have development encroaching into these woodland areas, and in order to save property, we are putting people's lives at risk," Phelan said.

Phelan added audiences can expect to see more climate change-related content on Fire Country as the season continues. CBS will likely make a decision about whether to commission a second series next spring.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.