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.
Take a look at this air tanker making a drop on the #LevanFire just a moment ago @KSL5TV pic.twitter.com/Yz8cpxfkUs
— Sam Penrod (@KSLsampenrod) July 25, 2014
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.