BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. When TV news wasn’t dutifully trying to jazz up the Republican Convention this week, it was striving to dramatize something already pretty dramatic, Hurricane Isaac, what Jon Stewart on Wednesday night called –
JON STEWART: Hurricane porn! From your standard guy outside in the rain, to women in rain burkas standing under the gutter of Damocles, to guy about to be sucked out to the sea…
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it’s not just hurricanes that TV news finds visually irresistible. It’s also been a devastating year for wildfires.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Aggressive, almost continuous aerial assault on the now more than 5,000-acre fire.
DIANE SAWYER: Tonight, there is a battle underway, brave men and women facing a test of will, courage and endurance. Seventeen wildfires…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Officials credit the aerial attack with keeping the fire from spreading.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Air Force was dropping retardant on this fire on that northern flank all day today, hoping to stop what you’re seeing unfold right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to the National Interagency Fire Center, which tracks wild fires across the US, 2012 again saw an increase in the average number of acres burned. For residents in western states, that means the loss of homes and businesses. For the rest of us, it means watching gripping images of firefighters battling the blaze on a massive scale.
Back in 2009, while wildfires burned in Los Angeles, we spoke with L.A. Times then-media reporter James Rainey about how the wildfires were unfolding for him in his backyard and on his TV screen.
JAMES RAINEY: 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 a 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’ve 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,” [LAUGHS] 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. It 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] Uh.
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. Well, I — 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, 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, 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 seventy 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: In 2009, James Rainey wrote the On the Media column for the L.A. Times. He’s now a political reporter.