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How pop culture could hinder the public's understanding of wildfires

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hollywood entertainment tells stories about wildfires with danger, suspense, dramatic rescues and pyrotechnics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FIRE COUNTRY")

KEVIN ALEJANDRO: (As Manny Perez) All right, guys, this is a real baptism by fire. By the end of the night, I'm going to know what kind of a man you are.

INSKEEP: Because who knows if you'll be able to survive all those cliches. Anyway, many firefighters would like to see a more realistic portrayal of their jobs. NPR's Chloe Veltman reports.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Movies and TV shows about wildfires haven't changed much since they first blazed across our screens in the middle of the last century.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED SKIES OF MONTANA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It was clearly a job for the smoke jumpers.

VELTMAN: Melodramatic scenes of heroic, cleft-chinned firefighters charging fearlessly at enemy fires were a thing back in the 1950s in movies like "Red Skies Of Montana."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED SKIES OF MONTANA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A half-dozen of these hard-hitting, specially trained firefighters drop from the air a few hours from now - would be worth a thousand men later on.

VELTMAN: And the over-romanticized view of wildfires is still very much a thing today. Megan Bolten is a firefighter in Eugene, Ore. She says it's high time Hollywood let go of these exaggerated, oversimplified and often inaccurate cliches.

MEGAN BOLTEN: Its aim is to entertain more than it is to inform.

VELTMAN: Instead, Bolten says, 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.

BOLTEN: Introducing the complexity of the conversation that's actually happening in fire and climate change and fuels management would be a huge help.

VELTMAN: The problem is watching fire prevention and control methods like a homeowner raking leaves off their lawn or a firefighter digging a ditch doesn't exactly make for scintillating screen time.

STEVE PYNE: Where's the action? Where's the drama?

VELTMAN: Arizona State University historian Steve Pyne studies the portrayal of wildfires in mass entertainment.

PYNE: It's very easy to tell the disaster in a war story. It's much harder to tell the story of preventative stuff.

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

PYNE: I mean, most people are not reading policy statements. They're not reading the Journal of Ecology. They will get it in popular forums.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FIRE COUNTRY")

BILLY BURKE: (As Vince Leone) This thing's going to rip right into town. We'll make our stand - right here. Water drop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEARLESS")

KAT LEON: (Singing) I'm burning up brighter than the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FIRE COUNTRY")

BURKE: (As Vincent Leone) God, I love this job.

VELTMAN: The new CBS series "Fire Country," about a group of prisoners turned volunteer firefighters in northern California, is aflame with the usual pyrotechnics and melodrama. The show has been publicly criticized by firefighters. "Fire Country" executive producer Tony Phelan says he understands the pushback.

TONY PHELAN: But we are not making a documentary, and so there are certain compromises that we make for dramatic purposes.

VELTMAN: Yet "Fire Country" does offer a spark of hope in terms of the work Hollywood needs to do to integrate topics like fire prevention and climate change into storylines.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FIRE COUNTRY")

BARCLAY HOPE: (As Father Pascal) You know, as I was driving over here, I was thinking, sometimes a bunch of fire citations can be just that. And...

VELTMAN: This moment from Episode 7 involves a local resident trying unsuccessfully to get out of paying a fine for not clearing the wood around his property - not very sexy. But executive producer Tony Phelan says scenes like this one matter.

PHELAN: We certainly have a responsibility to tell people about what it means to have development encroaching into these woodland areas. In order to, many times, save property, we are putting people's lives at risk.

VELTMAN: He says audiences can expect to see more climate change-related content on "Fire Country" as the season continues.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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