Red Hot Tips for Writing About Wildfire by L. A. Larkin
Fire can be a crime writer’s best friend. It can be a powerful plot device. When I decided to write a thriller about a serial killer who uses fire to cover up his crimes, I knew I had to do my homework. Here are some of the things I discovered, which may be useful to you if you’re thinking of writing about wildfires. I should say that I’m not a firefighter or a crime scene investigator, so this is purely an author’s perspective.
In mystery and suspense novels, fire can be used to trap a character, intimidate, wreak revenge, and kill. It can destroy evidence. It can send a detective’s investigation in the wrong direction. It creates heroes. It adds drama and tension. It can be used to reflect the mood of a character. Wildfires can even become characters. I’ve heard firefighters refer to megafires as monsters. They often talk about fire as if it were a living opponent that has to be beaten.
One of the first things I did was to interview a firefighter. Your local fire station is a good place to start. I told them that I was writing a novel and I would like to do some background research into how fires are start, their experiences, and the equipment they used. Firefighters’ firsthand accounts are likely to include little gems that will help you create wonderful sensory details, such as the smell, the weight of the oxygen tank, the color of the smoke, the sound of windows exploding when oxygen is sucked from a room, the intense heat, the bitter taste of ash in the mouth and so on. A volunteer firefighter, who had fought a wildfire over many days, trying to save houses, told me that he and his buddies had just save a house. Exhausted and thirsty, with ash and smoke all around him, he opened the refrigerator and drank from a milk carton. He took off his fire-retardant gloves to write a thank-you note. In it he promised to return and pay for the milk. He then went on to save another family’s house.
There are plenty of wildfire videos on YouTube. This summer, Washington and California experienced their worst wildfires on record. The Dixie Fire has become the largest wildfire in the history of California, destroying more than 700 square miles (1,811 square kilometers) of land. If you are setting your novel in an environment in which a wildfire is likely to start, what climate conditions might you as the author need to describe? A long hot summer. Drought. Rainwater tanks and reservoirs are low. Leaf litter, grass and twigs are tinder box dry. Add wind to the mix and you could have a wildfire heading rapidly towards your character’s home. It might be worth checking the temperature records for the place you wish to set your story. In June this year, for instance, Seattle reached an unprecedented high of 108°F which was 34 degrees above the normal high of 74. Canada set a new all-time heat record of 121.
Wildfires can start with a lightning strike. Campfires and barbeques are a danger if left unguarded, especially during fire season. A bullet that hits a rock in dry and hot conditions can cause a spark that in turn ignites dead leaves and dry twigs. Similarly, if the blade of a lawnmower hits a rock on a hot day, the spark could start a fire that spreads from the yard and into nearby woods.
Arsonists are a major cause of wildfires, although our increasingly long, hot, dry summers make it all too easy for the fires to spread. All it takes is a lit cigarette to ignite the blaze. Sometimes arsonists use accelerants such as gasoline, propane, and lighter fluid to speed up the process. There is often a distinctive smell left behind at a fire scene by accelerants. Forensics teams can detect the chemicals, where and how the fire was started. Witnesses, perhaps people walking a trail, may hear a woosh and then a boom sound if accelerant is used.
A wildfire can travel at ten to fourteen miles per hour if fanned by strong winds, depending on the terrain it’s crossing. What’s more, a wildfire can suddenly change direction with the passing of a cold front. That’s when people get caught out: they think they are safe because the wildfire has passed by, and then it does a one eighty and heads straight at them. According to Dr Reese Halter, who has been a volunteer firefighter and also reported on wildfires from the frontline, “wildfires are burning like we’ve never seen before. If you know one is coming your way, get out of Dodge!”
As an author, I wanted my readers to experience the terror of wildfires through the sensory details I use to describe them. I live in a city, but I vividly recall waking one morning, as wildfires burned sixty miles away, to find the sky was the color of a bruised peach. The air was thick with orange smoke. Every outdoor surface was covered in ash that had been carried into the city by the wind. It was like I had awoken on the red planet, Mars.
Reece described what it felt like to be on the frontline of a wildfire. “It’s like the jaws of death are trying to get you. It roars. You hear the screams of animals and I’ll never forget the acrid smell, sharper than discharged gunpowder.” The flame temperature of wildfires can get as hot as 1200°C (2,192° F), even hotter in fire tornados. Halter said that the heat was so intense if felt like his skin was burning. His heart was beating “like crazy with fear.”
Can anything survive such fires? Rubber melts, glass shatters, but brick and stone are hardy and are often the only thing left standing. Diamonds can survive fire as long as the temperature doesn’t exceed 6,000° F. Steel filing cabinets, although old fashioned now, might survive a fire, as might your steel tools.
And lastly, if you’d like to ensure your characters use the right terminology when it comes to fires and firefighting, you may find this list of terms from the National Park Service helpful: https://www.fs.fed.us/nwacfire/home/terminology.html
I’ve used fire in three of my thrillers and it’s a fantastic device to create tension, put characters under pressure, and dispose of inconvenient evidence. It’s worth investing a bit of time researching wildfires so that your descriptions, and characters’ reactions to the threat of fire, are moving and mesmerizing for your reader.
Next time your meet a firefighter, why not thank them for what they do? I write thrillers with fictional heroes. There’s no doubt in my mind that firefighters are the real deal.
L.A. Larkin’s crime-thrillers have won her fans all over the world. Described as a superb ‘chiller thriller’ writer by Marie Claire magazine, and praised by the king of crime, Lee Child, Louisa writes edge-of-your-seat stories with lots of plot twists and characters that surprise. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and runs courses in Crime and Thriller Writing.
She also writes Monty Dog Detective mysteries as Louisa Bennet, which are inspired by her two intrepid golden retrievers. Funny and heart-warming, the Monty series will have you smiling from ear to ear.
Her humorous fiction has won praise for its originality from readers all over the world. Louisa really has learned how to speak dog!