Wednesday, 20 May 2015

An Interview with Dungeon Smash about Fire.

A long time ago, looking for inspiration and information about a still-ongoing project, I asked my G+ stream if anyone knew anything about fire. Dungeon Smash, (blog here) responded and, after quickly finishing a bestiary with Scrap over about six months, I was able to ask some further questions.

Since the resulting interview is both exciting and illuminating I asked if I could share it on the blog. Dungeon Smash agreed, so long as I redacted his name and any personal details. Which I was pleased with as it gave me the chance to use the redaction tool addon I got for Word, which makes me feel important.

He also sent me a bunch of images. I'm not sure if I should be redacting the name of the image-author but since its a copyright thing I won't. All photos and captions credit to JOSHUA TERESZCIEWICZ.

An angry god.
(Some small spelling and grammatical errors have been corrected.)

Hey Pat, I'm gonna just start answering these questions piecemeal as they come to me.

toys in his hands
What signs are fearful, what would you look for to tell you that it is too late, that you are cut off?

Yesterday, I was on a prescribed burn (an intentional, controlled fire).  I was carrying a drip torch (a metal canister that holds a gallon of kerosene, with a flaming spout at one end).  We were running with a crew of newbies and state-sponsored folks (some of them pretty soft), and somebody had neglected to close the cap to the torch.

We were running hot and trying to get the piece burned off before nightfall.  I noticed that the can was leaking accelerant, and that the top of the can was on fire, but figured I'd be in and out of the burn zone before it would made a difference.  As we went deeper into the unit, we hit a wall of bramble and holly.  Being the dipshit that I am, I elected to plunge in with no visual of the firefighter on either side.

The bramble got deeper, knocking off my helmet and tearing my skin.  I was scrambling like a spaz to get it back on and keep my shit together.  It was getting hard to move - arm caught, free arm, leg gets caught, free leg, pack gets caught, etc.  I looked down, and the drip torch had ignited my sleeve.  I batted it out, but at this point the torch had grown so hot that the accelerant inside was boiling, shooting out a jet of fire and super-heated vapour about 6 feet long.  I was now holding something between a bomb and a flamethrower. I turned to back out, and realized I was stuck.

I tried to hang on to the drip torch, but it was shooting fire everywhere and lighting everything around me.  Reasoning that my life was not worth equipment, I pitched it overhand ahead of me.  The last I saw of it, it was spinning on the ground, a little tornado of fire.  I turned to run, but the fire I had lit behind me was pretty intense.  Burning holly leaves were drifting down around me.  Luckily, the guy on my right called me in to his location through a clear spot.  He was good.  I didn't hear the drip torch explode, but apparently it was loud enough to hear back at the road a quarter mile away.
This was a bad incident.  It could have been worse, but there was definitely a moment of "Shit, ''''''''''''''''''' [I refer to myself by my surname internally]*, you are about to become a statistic."  That was when I ditched the torch.  I was very glad that it was me holding it, and not one of the rookies I was in command of.

I don't know if this really answers your question.  I have only truly had to run from fire on two other occasions.  The signs that are bad are panic, clenching at your chest.  No way out, no clear spot, no idea of which direction even to head. 

Fire in the woods does funny things to the brain.  It becomes very easy to get lost, to run straight into the blaze by accident, thinking you heading for freedom.  I have noticed that this is particularly bad in the endless Black Spruce swamps of Alaska, which are like shifting walls of Velcro untouched and unseen by mankind.  There is no substitute for experience.

To a wise man, the forest and the fire can speak.

"Torching & Crowning; observe the structure therein

Is there an impulse to move toward as well as away?

The instinct to flee is immediate and almost universal.  There are some exceptions amongst some humanoids, who are weirdly drawn to the blaze.  There is a hypnotism in fire, and firefighting attracts an unsettling amount of pyromaniacs.

Anyone who has ever stared into a campfire knows the magical effect it can have; the result is exponentially greater when the fire is 500 feet high and 500,000 acres across.  Men will sometimes stand dumb, overawed.  I have to constantly remind people to get their eyes out of the fucking fire and into the unburned shit they might actually be able to protect. 

But no, it is very rare to see an individual knowingly walk into a fire.  The animal brain takes over; the three times I have run from fire I barely remember.  I was running entirely on amygdala and adrenaline. 

It is possible for very experienced individuals to gain a sort of immunity to this impulse, to be able to see and to think and to speak rationally within the fire. 

On one occasion, my crew boss thought it would be humorous to put a rookie in charge of a holding operation (holding the fireline to prevent fire from crossing into unburned terrain).  We saw a flareup right on the line, and the rookie shouted, "Charge!".

Yelling like warrior poets, we rushed in with hand tools and immediately the wind switched direction, blowing the fire right back into our beards.  I remember very little of the next few seconds, except for my crew boss standing tall atop a rock and motioning everyone into a nearby creek.  Then I was in the creek, my voice hoarse from roaring in pain and fury.

What are the first signs that a fire is near? (other than the fire itself)?

Smell.  Different fires have different smells.  Some are swampy, moist and dark.  Others are clean and hot.  Some smell like filth.  An active fire has a very different smell from a smouldering or a dead one.

Active fire has that fresh, campfire smell.  Smouldering fires smell awful, a sour mix of burning leaf litter, water and mud from the hoses.  A dead fire is a ghostly place.

I once knew a man who could smell heat like a bloodhound.  It was uncanny.  He could follow it to the source, even up a tree or underground, and tell you if it was out or hot and what type of fuel.  He had about 15 years of experience.

Light.  It is dark inside a fire, but a hellish dark with flares of red light.  From far away, it looks like sunset - daylight creeping away, blocked by a pillar of smoke illuminated from beneath.  The smoke drifts over the sun, giving everything a reddish tint.  When things get bad, it is as black as a pit.  The only light is from flashlights and the fire.

When you imagine what it's like in there, what do you imagine?

Pain, vomit, darkness.  The smell.  The aching of the body crying out against the task you are shredding it against.  The weight of the gear.  Voices yelling.  The brief rush of fire, singing the face and beard, We work 16 hour shifts, 14 days in a row.  You get 2 days off in between each 14er.  This goes on for about 6 months, or until the fires are out. 

The human body is not meant to countenance this.  Your gear begins to smell of cat piss - the smell of ammonia.  That smell is the smell your muscles make as they break down.  It's the smell of your body dying.

Birds & Fire, do you see them?  Do you hear birdsong?  What's the closest you hear birdsong to a large fire?

Despite the popular image of the phoenix, birds have a very strong aversion to fire.  In fact, birdsong is generally one of the signs that a fire is completely dead. 

Birds are the alarm systems of the forest - when the birds startle or go silent, it is generally a sign that something big and dangerous is moving through. A wise woodsman listens to the birds, because the animals listen to the birds too.  A wise woodsman does what the animals do, because they know the forest better than you.  If you aren't hearing birdsong, it means you are making too much noise and they are sounding the silent alarm - "Something big and dumb and loud is moving through!  A giant beast!  Hide, flee!"

The size and therefore threat of the intruder can be judged by the radius of the silence.  When they start chirping again, you can be fairly certain that the other animals in the area are now unaware of your presence. 

The exceptions to birds and fire aversion are ground birds, such as grouse and ptarmigan.  These birds are loath to leave their eggs, and it is fairly common to find their scorched carcasses still sitting atop a pile of burst and boiled eggs.  In other cases, the birds will flee the eggs but return as soon as the fire has passed.

This is a happy circumstance for hungry firefighters, because these birds are not very intelligent and can only fly short distances.  Because they so hate to abandon their eggs, they will often trust their natural camouflage when a human approaches the nest - a good tactic under most circumstances, but a poor one when all the nearby foliage is burnt to ash.  A thrown stick or rock is generally
sufficient to stun the bird such that she can be caught and her neck wrung, after which the breast may be parboiled to provide a rare respite from military rations.

Some men on the crew carried hunting slingshots or pistols for this express purpose.

The first time i ever ran from fire
How does the fire move through and around the things it takes and consumes? Like a liquid? a breeze?

I'm going to get into the science of fire a little; forgive me

Combustion is a chemical reaction which requires 3 things in order to function -
1. Fuel
2. Oxygen
3. Heat

Heat transfer can occur through one of 3 methods:
1. Conduction - you touch something hot and you become hot.  A burning coal falls onto your foot; your foot is heated to the point of burning.

2. Convection - heat moves through another substance to you, like water or air.  Air around fire heats up; air becomes so hot that objects within it ignite.

3. Radiation - light makes you hot.  The sun makes you hot; the light alone from a fire hot enough can blind you or torch you aflame.

Wind pushes hot air and conductive materials from place to place; Fire is primarily a wind-driven event.  It can shoot up natural chimneys, along the fronts of storms, and down river valleys and canyons. 

Occasionally it moves like some awful apex predator; coiling around branches and squirrel-nests before leaping from limb to limb, roaring furiously into a juicy fuel cache like a gambler into a jackpot.

I have seen it move like a liquid.  Usually, this occurs when an accelerant has been utilized.  If you pour gas all over the ground, fire will follow the liquid.  The other case is extreme convection-driven events.  Sometimes, the air becomes so super-heated that it begins to roll over the things in front of it like a wave.  As I mentioned, I've also seen trees become so super-heated that they begin to melt like candlesticks, with the sap evaporating into the sky and then falling as a golden, trickling rain that ignited the leaf litter in splashes.

Mostly, though, it moves with the wind.  It lashes and flickers with the wind, wraps and envelopes like a shroud, consuming and subsuming simultaneously, a sacrifice to itself, of itself, unto itself;
that the one burning chemical reaction that destroys what it embraces is thus empowered to embrace again.

The photographer, cutting a burning tree
Fire in the green; a fearful thing.  unburned fuels with no protection.
* (Patrick speaking here. O.K I know it sounds like I made this up because Fiddlin' Joe Cooper does exactly the same thing with his internal voice. But I didn't, honest.)

My Crew.

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