The Lessons of the Past. Every day the front page of the newspaper reminds us that for sheer terror, truth leaves fiction in the dust. In October of 1991, the fire in the Oakland-Berkeley hills destroyed 2,843 homes, 433 apartments and killed 25 people. Despite these tragic, billion dollar statistics, many homeowners elsewhere in the Bay Area and especially in the affluent suburbs of nearby Woodside, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, are still not physically, emotionally and mentally prepared for the fact that a frighteningly similar firestorm could happen in their own back yard. The stage is set; expensive hillside homes with wood shake roofs built along narrow winding roads and next to open space areas containing both eucalyptus trees and heavy fuel loads. Should a firestorm strike again, when the curtain closes on the whole sorry affair, the underlying reason will be undeniably cultural: the American public's archaic and inappropriate understanding of wildfire. This author is not the only person in the Bay Area who claims to know how bad things are and how close we came in October of 2000 to having another runaway brushfire. But I do know that as scarce as the truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand. The era of big government has to change. This author believes the Federal government is rapidly moving from a defacto policy where control burns have to be fenced in, to a policy where wildfire has to be fenced out. This puts the burden of home protection on the homeowner.
Those Who Forget the Past.... History tells us that a party of Plains Indians in the 1870's once tried to stop a steam train by stretching a rope across the tracks. No one was killed but the results were painfully predictable. The mass of the iron horse was simply something beyond their collective experience. Similarly, fire storms ignited by massive firebombing during WW II air raids over Tokyo and Dresden reportedly generated winds that were strong enough to collapse buildings, uproot trees and drag screaming people to their fiery deaths. The death toll is recorded in the history books. Humanity doesn't need to make those mistakes again. As the author of this modest project I know I will not change history, although the study of history has already changed me deep inside.... which is what the study of the Humanities at the college level is designed to do. Eight years into this project I now realize that the application of science may solve problems for us... but the arts will always define these problems. As an artist I realize that myths and cultural icons are powerful things. But they serve us as faithful servants or are cast aside. This society simply cannot afford the luxury of disfunctional myths. Great leaders, to their credit, have always believed in the power of myth. Recent events reminds us however, that perjury and mythmaking are just a small cognitive leap apart. Not to mention any names, but the Baby Boomers have proved themselves to be just as flawed as any other generation of people. The movers and shakers of the next milennium don't have to be fearless leaders or rocket scientists; they just have to be smarter than the average bear, eh Booboo? So "The Cannonball Express" will be food for thought for a new generation and a call to action on several fronts.
The Silence is Deafening. Taken as a whole, this project deflates the
belief that technology is the answer to all of our problems. As you might suspect,
those old school people seeking to attack the problem of brush fires in suburbia
with tanks and high tech planes won't find moral support here and they probably
won't be contributing financially to this project. Neither will those whose
only solution is to spread the risk around by selling more fire insurance. In
my book, insurance has its place but no amount of compensation can replace the
lifetime of memories wrapped up in a house, nor succeed in putting a pretty
face back on a burned child. In all honesty, there are some neat gizmos out
there for protecting your home and you'll see links to a couple of them here.
For those ethically challenged people with refined and discriminating taste
who already have a whole garage full of gizmos and still covet the smell of
a new house..... try this instead. Open a small can of oil based paint with
a coin and then sprinkle a few handfuls of fragrant saw dust around your living
room. This should get you by for a while. Please don't use a cell phone at the
first whiff of smoke to demand that firemen's lives be needlessly risked for
the salvation of your material possessions. Instead, imagine yourself in the
boots, helmet and overcoat of a fire captain in the middle of a firestorm, suddenly
nose to nose with an irate homeowner. Repeat after me..."Put your wallet away
sir! I'm sorry but this is my crew, they are my responsibility and we don't
perform human sacrifices any more for the rich and powerful. We've moved way
beyond that stage. Its just not in the contract." Now say it again .... with
feeling! And be prepared to watch a grown man cry because fire can be contained
and anguish can't.
Any firefighter can describe the pain of losing a home to fire. What most bureaucrats in the office backing up the firefighter in the field don't realize is that high tech toys and artificial intelligence are no match for natural stupidity. The power of fire may be awesome but the greatest threat to human life is our own human failings. Therefore, our video will address the squirreley, flaky, irrational and disobedient side of human nature that drives the policy wonks crazy. If we shoot to kill with our political satire in the Project Briefing link it is only because the gluttonies at work devouring nature are remorseless. (Edward Hoagland)
Back on the Soap Box. As a civilized people we must pass legislation that will allow us to begin doing for mother nature what we aren't letting mother nature do for herself. The time has come to see fire, not as an enemy to be conquered, but as a powerful tool that can be used for good or evil. With our video we seek to reinvent and improve man's currently disfunctional relationship to a facet of nature that is simultaneously dreadful, beautiful and holy. This may seem ambitious but my proposal is actually quite modest. This video will not be a mass marketed escapist fantasy. We will instead communicate in a new and fascinating way, how homeowners must learn to adapt their suburban lifestyles to that power of nature which balances the hand of life with death...... or risk losing everything they own. It is imperative that recent immigrants to California and new homeowners understand the tenuous nature of civilization's grip on the desert edge of this continent and the ease with which nature can remove a house or a whole neighborhood from the face of the earth. It is up to us to create new myths to fit the new reality. In the best cinematic tradition of documentary film making, "The Cannonball Express" will show the mundane truth of modern suburban life and the social context in which people here in the arid West, make their home buying and landscaping decisions. And so, as the Indians masterfully burned the land to improve conditions for hunting and gathering, we boldly proclaim the positive side of going back in time, to find solutions for the future, in terms of the related problems of urban firestorms and biodiversity. This strategy is an elegant approach to a controversial topic, is it not? This video project is only one of the good things that good thinking can do.
Houston, We Have A Problem. As much as we need the traditional home fire safety-public relations video cobbled together by your local fire department with little more than a PC , a VCR and a camcorder, in terms of changing homeowner behavior here in the leafy hills of the Bay Area, these videos seem to be barking up the wrong tree. The brotherhood of firefighters can't be faulted for this.... although getting the union leadership of urban firefighters to listen to reason takes more patience than I have. Maybe they don't remember that EBMUD's water system was hemorrhagging a million gallons of water an hour, early in the course of the Oakland-Berkeley hills fire. Maybe they can't conceive of multiple water storage tanks being sucked dry by the combined demands of;
Sad but true, water lost at this rate would drain a reservoir like Bear Gulch, in the hills above Menlo Park, in less than eight hours.
So if the collective memory of firefighters is as short as anyone else's then why should a firefighter care if a homeowner wants to believe that thick brush is a barrier to fire? All that these people on the fire crews want to do is to live to fight fire again another day. And besides, they got a good thing going. Everyone loves a firefighter and in every society, heroes tend to be richly rewarded. But just to let you in on a little secret, when the time comes and thick smoke is in the air, if a house looks like a loser, firefighters in a truck will grimly pass it by and make a stand in front of a house that they can save. These men and women have standing orders to triage homes and who can blame them? No firefighter gets a medal for losing a fire engine and going to burn therapy. Personally, I'll refrain from casting the first stone at these guys with any great deal of accuracy for the following reasons. First of all, haven't the combined efforts of builders, homeowners and politicians effectively hamstrung the fire fighter's leadership? Secondly, the rank and file firefighter can't be blamed for not wanting to risk his life or rock the boat. His job is dangerous enough as it is and the next big hopscotching, wind driven suburban brushfire could seem (from the cab of a fire engine) more like a desperate streetfight than a well rehearsed war of maneuver. These seasoned professionals know that when you put a lot of panicky people in front of a big suburban brush fire.... the book of standard operating procedures goes right out the window. Basically, there's no tellin' what's gonna happen. In these circles, it is generally accepted, although not readily admitted, that when fighting wildfire in winds over 35 miles per hour..... there are no rules. Because when the winds top 45 miles an hour, there is no God. Finally, if these firemen kinda hope "The Big One" happens while they're away on vacation then human nature and the game of musical chairs dictated by the personnel schedule are in perfect synch.
What's Wrong With This Picture? There are good laws on the books and trained firefighters in the station houses. In the Spring time, fire marshals make house calls to preach, teach and nag. But if the homeowner refuses to comply or cooperate, then the fire marshal is left with few palatable options. He can try to get a court order to force a homeowner into compliance with defensible space laws. The catch is, no one really expects a judge to enforce defensible space laws in the face of citizen opposition if it is going to make him politically unpopular. Who can blame a judge when his career is on the line? Judges are mortal men with families and mortgages like anyone else. Our firefighters don't need laws with teeth. They get tired just thinking about it. What they really need is the cooperation of an educated citizenry. While ours is a political system that is designed to give a little in a crunch..... another billion dollar suburban firestorm would be so brain dead stupid, we'd have to collectively nominate ourselves for The Darwin Awards. The competition could be tough. We'd be up against Baghdad and Belgrade. And we could very well win because another urban conflagration doesn't have to happen again. For the cost of another fire on the scale of the Oakland-Berkeley fire of 1991 here is what you could do.
As one Senator so blithely put it. A million here, a million there and pretty soon you're talking real money. " Even to a third world dictator with a Swiss bank account, a billion and a half dollars is not chump change.
The Larger Picture. Setting aside for a moment the social issues of life, liberty and the pursuit of property, we want to point out that is is clearly morally wrong in a larger sense, to stand by and let pyro maniacs, who are unelected to any public office, dictate the expenditure of massive amounts of public funds for their own gratification when other needs go begging. That's Common Sense, isn't it? Let 'em buy dirty magazines like everybody else. We prefer to believe that life is good, the world is whole and our children have a place in it. But every October we face the same freakish weather conditions. If we the people, continue to do (or not do) the same dumb things....and expect different results....isn't that a little bit insane? Keep surfing....the truth is out there and the answers are coming.
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