Massive fires raging through Southern California dominated the news this week, with much of the coverage focused on airplanes soaring above the flames, dropping bright red fire retardant. Great TV to be sure. But Los Angeles Times media columnist James Rainey says the media focus too much on airplanes, to the detriment of the fire fight.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The California wildfires had, as of Thursday, raged through nearly 150,000 acres, claiming homes, businesses and the lives of two firefighters. During a conflagration like this, there’s one tool in a firefighter’s arsenal that makes great TV.
[SOUND OF AIRCRAFT]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Fighting the fire from the air: choppers, turbo props, even jets.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: One of the curiosities of this effort is a World War II flying boat that has been converted for aerial firefighting.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The blooms of smoke over Los Angeles so thick aircraft dropping water fly in blind, unable to see the flames they're trying to extinguish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Rainey writes the On The Media column at The Los Angeles Times. This week he wrote that often the flame-fighting planes seen in the sky amid the smoke are deployed more for the media spectacle than they are for their actual utility.
JAMES RAINEY: Yeah, they're, they’re really quite majestic. And if you've ever lived through these wildfires, and I've lived through quite a few of them, there’s a feeling of a kind of powerlessness that comes over people. And I think the sight of one of these -- and, in fact, in this fire we had even a 747 come in and do a couple of spectacular drops of retardant -- it’s really quite an awe-inspiring thing to see because these pilots are very skilled too and they'll swoop in much lower than you want to see a plane that big normally. And they'll, you know, uncork maybe 20,000 gallons of this bright red retardant. It’s extremely telegenic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you saying then that it helps relieve that feeling of powerlessness, that it’s like, you know, your classic deus ex machina?
JAMES RAINEY: [LAUGHS] It absolutely does. And this is not to say that there’s no utility in it at all. I think all the fire professionals would agree there is a time and place for the retardant and then there are also water drops, which can be quite effective in spots. But what happens in each one of these fires is as the anxiety level goes up people start to call their local city councilmen or congressperson, and inevitably the one thing that they know to ask for, because they've seen it in every other fire, is an airplane. There have been constant questions over the last few days on L.A. TV and radio, where’s the Super Scooper?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And what is that?
JAMES RAINEY: The Super Scooper is a prop plane that comes down every fire season, and it’s a brilliant yellow bird, and it can not only drop a pretty large quantity of water, it can scoop water up as it keeps moving, so it can make a lot of cycles to the closest lake or ocean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in your column you call the Super Scooper the “erstwhile glitter girl of the fire squadron,” and you say that firefighters have a name for the plane drops, that they call them “CNN drops.”
JAMES RAINEY: CNN drops, yes, because what happens is these politicians get those phone calls and they may know themselves that the water drops, the retardant drops are only a part of the solution, but they also know that they're getting dozens and maybe hundreds of phone calls. And the easiest thing for someone in political office to do, of course, is to cave in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Along with wasting resources, are there any cases where fires took longer to put out because the focus was diverted to these – what some fire fighters call “political air shows?”
JAMES RAINEY: One of the things the fire officials told me is, look, the Super Scooper is specifically to drop water, not to drop retardant. And we've just dropped retardant in some of these areas, which doesn't actually put out the fire but it slows it down, gives the fire crews more time to build these fire lines. They said, if we go up and dump water in some of those areas, we're potentially just washing away the retardant that we just dumped there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Oh.
JAMES RAINEY: So we really want to be careful. We don't care that people are upset that they're not seeing the Super Scooper up in the air. We'll put it in where it can be most effective. It was easier, in most cases, for helicopters to get in and out of there and dump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think if the reality of using these planes was reported better that the pressure on politicians to use them would ease up?
JAMES RAINEY: Yes. I mean, if they came on every time and reminded you, boy, that looks beautiful but it might not make nearly as much difference as the 2,000 guys back up in the foothills with their bulldozers and their axes, I think, yes, it would make a difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote this week that the coverage was reminiscent of what you called “the skewed perspective that we get at the start of a Middle Eastern war.”
JAMES RAINEY: Yeah. I do think that there is a hope and sort of a dream that we can solve all these problems through technology, and so in those wars, whether it was the first Gulf War or the Iraq War, we'd see those beautiful Pentagon briefings and the bomb would go right down the chimney and eliminate the communications center. Well, we all know in the aftermath that not all the bombs were quite that smart. There always is collateral damage, and that takes on a very human form if you’re on the ground with the foot soldiers. And the same way in a fire: These beautiful air shots are one thing, but I think you'd have a quite a different perspective of the fire, as a reporter, if you were down on the ground with these guys in 105-degree heat, carrying 70 pounds of equipment, traipsing through the chaparral here in California.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
JAMES RAINEY: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Rainey is the media columnist at The Los Angeles Times.