Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em

Is fighting fire with fire a good idea? As you’ll see, the answer is, "Not always." Several years ago, I wrote, produced and directed a training video on forest firefighter safety. The program dealt with the many dangers of fighting wildfires on the ground. Shooting a program like this requires the cooperation of active fire service agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, local fire departments and local fire crews. With a basic ENG crew and a technical advisor from the National Fire Protection Association, we were trying to re-create fighting fire under such smoky and noisy conditions that firefighters could lose their way and not hear or see anyone else. Because it was a clear day, we decided to employ smoke cookies to simulate the conditions of a wildfire and to obscure the firefighters from the camera, thus simulating the severe conditions.

We were on location at the ranger station in Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest. We were trying to simulate firefighters cutting a line, keeping the forest fire in check. Because of the wind conditions, we couldn’t simulate enough smoke out of the dozen smoke cookies that we were lighting off, and when changing camera angles, we were having problems keeping our manufactured smoke going in the direction of our fire crew. We needed more smoke.

One of the crew came up with the idea of topping the cookies with some dry leaves and pine needles. It was a moment when you think, "Well, that seems like a good idea. It certainly might help the shot." We placed more cookies on aluminum pie plates, covered them up with the needles and leaves, and got great smoke to complete the sequence. We had so much smoke, we shot additional takes of a forest firefighter using a shovel in heavy smoke.

Wow, we made it! Break time! It was then that one of our crew members looked behind us. As we were all facing the action, none of us had noticed that we had started a grass fire on the lawn of the ranger station. The grass was burning in an oval covering about 150 square feet and growing. Everyone quickly launched their best foot-stomping dance to put the fire out. It was just in time, too, because the wind was picking up and it was getting dark. A moment of tension turned into laughter with a generous helping of embarrassment.

Earlier in the day, we had positioned one of the fire trucks on a grassy spot where it sank up to the axle and had to be towed out, but that’s another story of its own.

Fortunately, the forest service representative (who became a close friend) had so much fun at our expense, we were neither cited, nor reprimanded, for our mistakes—although, to this day, he still retells this story, especially when we’re in the company of others.

Jim Smalley is a former firefighter, teacher and freelance producer for the Discovery Channel, New England Today and others. He now teaches Aperture, Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro for Apple.

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