“It’s a living thing…It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling; not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to.” –Fire Inspector Rimgale, played by Robert DeNiro, in the Ron Howard film Backdraft.
As a boy, I witnessed a freeway accident. Years later, I can recall it in high definition. A collision had sent a car skidding along a guardrail for nearly fifty feet, mangling it and leaving a wet trail behind it the whole way, before it came to a stop. I remember looking at that wet trail and the moment it took me to realize it was gasoline. I remember thinking how it will burn, moments before it did. In an instant after that realization an angry flash of blue flame followed the trail in a hurry, faster than a man can run, but slowly enough that I had time to know that the driver couldn’t know the horrible fate in store while I did. There was a fireball when the flame reached its destination, where it erupted in mad celebration, triumphant, a bacchanal of consumption; it was obscene in its indifference to life. I don’t know if the driver survived, I was quickly ushered away by adults.
As a teen, I recovered from this traumatic introduction to fire at campfires, in which fire was our friend and companion. Fire shared its warmth, fire provided illumination, fire was our confidante, privy to our stories and songs and thoughts voiced aloud. It seemed to delight when we cast long shadows with our hands, and crackled gratefully when we would toss in another branch. Fire seemed tame then; like a tiger in its cage, it ceased to be threatening or menacing; contained in a circle of stone, it resigned itself to eating whatever we fed it, seemingly content in its role, until it quietly expired while we slept. Fire was alive.
In a quote frequently, and probably apocryphally, attributed to George Washington, he described fire (in a comparison to government) as “a handy servant, but a dangerous master”, which would be an apt way to describe it, if it were indeed alive.
However, the partypoopers at the University of California were quick to douse cold water on my speculation, while barely containing their laughter. Life, as we know it, has to have seven properties: chemical uniqueness, complexity and hierarchical organization, reproduction, possession of a genetic program, metabolism, development, and environmental reaction (Hickman, Roberts, and Larson 1997). Fire lacks a cellular structure (which animals and plants have), it contains no genetically inheritable material, and does not have complex organization. That eliminates the second and fourth requirements for life, and you need all seven to live it up.
Disheartened, I turned to a real firefighter (not a movie one), who scoffed at DeNiro’s character. “THAT kind of careless romanticism has no place on the fire department”, he said. Fire isn’t alive, and it doesn’t think. It is 100% predictable. When faced with the same circumstances, it burns the same way every time. What makes our job challenging is that circumstances are never the same. That’s why we study the mechanics of combustion and the physics behind fire: so we can better predict how it responds to different circumstances. We are technicians, not cowboys.”