Disney’s “Planes:” Fostering myths or spreading the good news?

When I first saw the trailer for Disney’s Planes: Fire and Rescue, I felt like a really giddy nerd. A so-called kid’s animation flick that bandies words like “SEAT” and “fireline” seemed too good to pass up—one of those movies you might see because it’s too ridiculous to be real.

But last week when I rounded up a group of journalists to go see it—all of us having cut our teeth in the business covering Colorado wildfires—we realized Planes is a little bit more than a fire nerd’s dream movie.

Sure, it was not a feat of cinematic genius. It was rife with racial, cultural and political stereotypes that made me wince. Nonetheless, it speaks to a colossal natural phenomenon that affects millions of North Americans every year.

Wildfire is more than a backwoods problem. And the fact that Disney chose to focus on it—involving extensive collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service—is a big statement, I think. Fires are in the public consciousness—but I didn’t need a Disney movie to tell me that.

I would argue that wildfires have seldom been more in public eye than they have in the past decade. Now, there’s more to burn and more extreme conditions that fuel fire. As the West’s population expands, more people are moving into the wildland urban interface. Just this week I was on a conference call with scientists discussing their concern for how wildfires are made worse by climate change, bringing rising temperatures and persistent drought.

But let me back up a bit. It’s clear from watching Planes that Disney did its homework— however, it also got some things wrong. The story begins with a broken down crop-duster, named Dusty Crophopper, who has to find another life calling. He picks firefighting, flying off to some mythical Western national park (vaguely reassembling Yellowstone) to learn the tricks of the trade. There he joins a crew of re-purposed aircraft and some plucky dozers fighting fires in the wilderness.


For those savvy in the politics of wildfire, the movie has many subtle nods to the budget woes that plague the forest service. (“We never get anything new!” a plane mechanic quips at one point.) Not to mention the slight irony that defunct or retired planes are commissioned to fight explosive fires.

But here is where the message gets mixed: Are firefighting aircraft the panacea that will solve all of our wildfire problems?

In a movie where planes are people, it can certainly seem that without aircraft our firefighters are doomed. The movie’s actual “boots on the ground” crew is a handful of dozers that can be airlifted from fire zones when they get trapped. When fire gets close, the paint blisters on one helicopter and Dusty’s wings get severely singed, but no character dies.

Indeed, airtankers are a spectacular display of firefighting and certainly the most visible. From many miles away people can watch as curtains of retardant fall on a burning forest, but they cannot see the crews on the ground—for whom the airtankers are clearing the way.

I don’t know that a child needs to pick up on the political entanglements of the planes and fires. But there was at least one big moral conundrum that I’m a sure younger watcher couldn’t miss: What’s more important, man or nature?

The movie gives conflicting answers to that. At one point a greedy, obnoxious park manager (humorsly cast as a shiny white Cadillac Escalade) taps into the firefighting crew’s precious water supply to save a massive new lodge. The movie’s message here is clear: that’s bad. Water is needed to save “people” (cars, for this movie’s purposes) and the put out the fire, not to douse an ostentatious building.

How does this align, I wonder, with statistics? The forest service spends a third of its fire suppression budget defending homes. Not everyone agrees on this score, but some fire experts blame increased firefighting deaths on the need to defend homes in the WUI.

Then of course there is the portrayal of fire itself—a spectacular beast of nature that must be extinguished at all costs. There is absolutely no mention in the movie about fire ecology, nor does any character explain that many of our Western forests are adapted to fire.

Some might say that’s beyond a child’s comprehension. But if a kid’s movie can have a central character that is a Single Engine Air Tanker, I’d like to think that some mention of the balance of fire and nature could be understandable, too.

Ask anyone—a firefighter, a fire survivor—if fire is “good” or “bad” and you’ll get different answers every time. Fire is destruction and rebirth, even for those who have lost homes to it.

But in the end, and to its credit, Planes is really a movie about being prepared. Dusty Crophopper returns home a true firefighter ready to help defend his local airport from encroaching flames. And maybe that’s all we can do in a nation entangled in a snarl of budget concerns, expanding wilderness populations, and a changing climate—namely, be prepared.

I’m picturing a modern rendition of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at me, at you, at firefighters and politicians: What can you do to be prepared?

The answer will be different for everyone.


Suspected California pot-grower charged with starting Nicolls Fire

A second California man suspected of running an illegal pot-growing operation has been charged with igniting a wildfire, this time in the Sequoia National Forest.

Edgardo Fournier was indicted by a federal grand jury on Thursday and charged with cultivating thousands of marijuana plants, damaging forest lands and starting the Nicolls fire, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Fournier allegedly ignited the blaze when he learned that other men working on the grow planned to kill him, according to court documents. Fournier told investigators he was fleeing other men on July 11 when he decided to light small fires with a cigarette lighter to stop the pursuit, The Bee reported.

The fire eventually grew to more than 1,600 acres and could incur millions of dollars in damages.

The same day the Nicolls fire ignited, California authorities say that Freddie Alexander Smoke III allegedly started the Bully Fire as he was driving a truck to a marijuana grow he was tending.

The Bully Fire has burned 12,661 acres and destroyed 21 structures. A body of person was also later found within the fire perimeter.






UPDATE: Carlton Complex fire mostly contained, hundreds of homes lost

UPDATE 3 p.m. MDT: The Okanogan County Sheriff is now estimating that at least 300 homes were destroyed by the Carlton Complex fire, according to Inciweb. That number is double the initial estimate of 150.


The massive Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington was declared 55 percent contained this week as cooler temperatures and rain gave fire crews a reprieve from two weeks of hot, dry conditions..

The fire has burned 250,489 acres — that’s nearly 400 square miles — and is believed to have destroyed hundreds of homes. At least 7,000 residents in Okanogan County are still without power after the fire; efforts to restore power have been stymied by rain, The Seattle Times reported. Power was expected to be restored in some areas by Friday. 

Take a look at aerial photos of the fire’s destruction

Nearly 3,000 personnel have been assigned to the complex, which is made up of four lightning-started fires that ignited on July 14. The fire has become the largest in state history — surpassing the Yacolt Burn of 1902, which killed 38 people and burned more than 230,000 acres. The Carlton Complex has triggered a federal disaster declaration, which will allow the state to access aid funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There are reports that at least one firefighter has been injured — he suffered second degree burns on his leg after he stepped in a hole filled with hot ash. At least one person, 67-year-old Rob Koczewski, died of a heart attack while digging line around his home to protect it from the fire. 

Carlton Complex fire perimeter.

Carlton Complex fire perimeter.

The Chiwaukum Complex, just to the southwest of the Carlton, ignited on July 15 and is made up of three fires that have collectively burned around 12,255 acres. It is 25 percent contained.

Although that fire has not been as destructive as the Carlton Complex, it got a lot of attention when it first ignited two weeks ago, and sent up a massive smoke plume that could be seen from Seattle.



Red Flag Warning: July 25, 2014

Red Flag Warning, July 25, 2014.

Red Flag Warning, July 25, 2014.

Warnings for elevated wildfire danger were issued Friday by the National Weather Service for areas in Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

The Red Flag Warning map was current as of 8 a.m. MDT on Friday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts. For the most current data visit this site. 




Northwest Colorado wildfire burns 20,000 acres

The Alkali fire in northwestern Colorado rapidly burned 20,000 acres in less than 24 hours as of Thursday, and remains the only sizable wildfire to hit the state this fire season.

The fire was discovered north of Maybell around 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9News in Denver reported. The cause remains under investigation. Thus far, the fire has not prompted mass evacuations, but it has destroyed a part-time home and barn and killed three cattle.

It’s been a remarkably quiet fire year for Colorado following two back-to-back years of devastating wildfires in the state. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire burned 347 homes in western Colorado Springs, while the Lower North Fork and the High Park fires in Northern Colorado burned hundreds of homes and thousands of acres.

The destruction of that summer was only surpassed by the Black Forest fire in 2013, which destroyed 486 homes east of Colorado Springs and burned under 16,000 acres.

Like much of the west for the past decade, Colorado has been plagued by drought until this year. Torrential rains in September 2013, while killing 10 people and causing massive flood damage statewide, gave the state a much needed reprieve from tinder-dry conditions.

There are a few areas of the state that are still abnormally dry, including Moffat County, in the state’s northwestern-most corner.

U.S. Drought Monitor

U.S. Drought Monitor


Red Flag Warning: July 24, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 9.13.33 AM

Warnings for elevated wildfire danger were issued Thursday by the National Weather Service for areas in Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

The Red Flag Warning map was current as of 9:15 a.m. MDT on Thursday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts. For the most current data visit this site.