Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Finally Somebody Gets It About Forest Fires

I'm excited about this headline in the Oregonian. This is an idea I've pondered for years, even writing a script about it.

Jumbo jets may help on fire lines

Here's an old column I wrote for the Tribune. The script it mentions is called "Watching Trees Grow", which has to be the dumbest title of all time, but I did get the producer's attention with it:

Have you ever wondered if there isn’t a better way to fight forest fires? Is there anything as pathetic as seeing a helicopter with a little bucket under it, battling a blaze that’s already taken 40,000 acres and four young lives? What if we unleashed the full fury of our military arsenal to help in the battle, much as the Russians recently used their planes to break up the ice that was causing a river to flood? The whole concept of fighting forest fires could be changed. High technology could be employed to put the damn things out before they got so big. Rapid response with overwhelming force. Here’s the plan:
A satellite over the West spots anything burning bigger than a quarter acre, and relays the information to the nearest military base. Fighters scramble to get in the air with some laser-guided, heat-seeking bombs full of anything from water to high-tech, fire-fighting gel, and knock the fire down while it’s still small. Next we get there with high-speed bombers for a second wave. Forget the vintage prop planes with the red stuff coming out. This buys enough time to get the big stuff off the ground. Helicopters with buckets? Try a gigantic transport plane with an Olympic swimming pool in the back. Then add 20 of them in formation focusing on beacons put in place by the jet fighters.
How about reusable high-tech materials that will soak up heat? Did you know the space shuttle heat tiles are so efficient that you can hold one in your bare hand while it’s glowing? Let’s drop in some ultra-chilled, heat-sink material.
Finally, way in the future, we could have a particle beam that can sap out a fire line as fast as it takes to circle a word in chalk on the blackboard. I have nothing but respect for the firefighters out there setting backfires and trying to create a fireline with shovels, chain saws, axes, and an occasional bulldozer. But it’s not exactly an overwhelming force. That’s when you get phrases like “75% contained”. Doesn’t “75% contained” really mean “not contained”?
I never bought the idea that forest fires are just natural and should be allowed to burn. Make that, “They used to be natural.” Forests used to have trees so big, they could take a forest fire without dying. Maybe we could be extra protective, until trees that big can return. When people who don’t normally seek out environmental solutions, resort to the nature argument it reminds me of hearing Newt Gingrich say that extinction is natural, too.
The turning point for me was one summer when the satellite picture showed one third of Oregon covered with smoke. After thinking it over for years, I put all my ideas in a screenplay and sent them to my producer connection. The idea was fighting forest fires as a form of national security.
The expense would be written off as military training.
Unfortunately, the producer felt my script was so bad, that it actually came across as an argument for clear-cutting. He called back though, when a forest fire was racing at full speed towards our nuclear lab at Los Alamos. Suddenly the idea of having a better way to combat forest fires made all kinds of sense.


Post a Comment

<< Home