Something unexpected happened last week. A wildfire blazed through the open space that borders our property. Because our house is right next to the gate to the open space, my husband and I had a first row seat as panicked visitors drove off, police cars and fire trucks drove in, and the local news affiliates tagged along to document the blaze.
Now I don't want to say this was a huge deal -- not with earthquakes, tsunamis, and wars still commanding the headlines. No one was hurt. Strong winds blew the flames and smoke away from the homes bordering the open space. The fire was contained in a relatively swift manner.
But the potential it had was terrifying. What if the winds were blowing in a different direction? What if the kids who allegedly started the fire chose a different park location to mess around? What if someone, tired after a long day of hiking, got caught up in the blaze?
Around 7pm, we saw smoke. Police arrived, fire trucks soon followed. By 7:30pm, Eyewitness News cameras were set up and collecting footage. The other affiliates trickled in after that. At 10:30pm the news crews finally left since they stayed on location for the 10 o'clock news. Fire trucks worked through the night. The next morning they were still there, assessing the damage.
In total, only 10 acres were destroyed, upsetting the natural ecosystem and the hiking and biking trails that wind through it. Now that I'm over the surprise, I wanted to share what I learned from the fire, which may help you if, god forbid, you find yourself in a similar situation or just want an extra dose of realism for a crisis moment in your own WIP.
1. Always call 911 - Don't assume someone else has done so. With the park full of people, I was shocked my husband was only the second person to call it in after seeing flames from one of our windows. You may have heard of something called the Bystander Effect, where people don't offer help when other people are present, ostensibly under the impression that someone else will. Is your character someone who takes charge, no matter what, or someone who lets others do the work for them?
2. A lot can happen in a short amount of time - Like I said, we saw smoke around 7pm. 15 minutes later, the fire trucks finally showed up. In addition to smoke, flames had encompassed the site by then - big ones - that exacerbated an already intense situation. When writing a crisis moment in you stories, use pacing to your advantage. Short, choppy sentences. Sensory details. Never forget the unpredictability of Mother Nature, and use it to your advantage to up the stakes.
3. People are still people, even in a crisis - Before the police arrived, there were still jerks trying to get into the park to see what was going on. Once the cops showed up, people would approach officers and pester them for details. One policeman said his time was better spent on fire containment, not answering questions. My point is if your character is a jerk before a crisis, chances are, he'll still be one during and after it. There were no magical transformations. If anything, someone's defining characteristics (good and bad) become even more pronounced in such situations.
4. Fire in particular is compelling - People inched as close as they could to the line the cops were maintaining. One group of hikers snuck through using another trail to see what was going on before they were called off. Even in the blurry pictures I managed to take, my eye is constantly drawn to the bright spots, to the flames. So when capturing your crisis in words, do not neglect the visual component. This doesn't mean you overlook the other senses, but remember the cinematic quality such events can have.
5. Never underestimate the appeal of getting on TV - Because the TV crews were set up essentially in my yard, I saw how the reporters found people for televised reactions -- they just had to turn around to find those who had crept up behind them, in some cases making small talk with the cameraman or reporters, kissing up for their chance to share their impressions. Is your character someone who will push his way towards the reporters or someone who hangs back (like me) to get away from the spotlight?
6. Bystanders do two things - They either parrot the information they think they know about what's going on and/or articulate their association to the situation - in this case the area under fire. "We live right here." "I run on the trails every morning." "Well, I mountain bike here on the weekends." "I remember a few years ago how about another fire that happened here." And so on. People feel connected to place, then share that connection to justify why they are looking on, helplessly. It can devolve into a pissing match ("This place is more important to me." "No, me.") but ultimately, it's people expressing their connection to the tragedy. What connects your character to the crisis in your story? How does it make them feel? How can you use the unvalidated information people parrot back and forth to drive your narrative?
7. There will always be looky-loos - People were driving past the open space entrance for hours after the fire trucks showed up on the scene. The next day, people kept stopping by to see for themselves. Never underestimate the compulsion to see something with your own eyes. What's the difference for your character whether they experience something firsthand or not? Would they want to see for themselves or accept other people's accounts of the crisis?
8. You will quickly learn what is most important to you - After I saw the smoke, my first instinct was to gather up essentials, in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. Within five minutes, I assembled a bag with my laptop and notebooks (of course!); documents like the deed to our house, birth certificates, passports, marriage licenses, insurance; a box of mementos; and my ipod since I'm such a music snob. It was just one bag, but those items told me a lot about myself. What would your characters put in their bag?
I hope no one has to experience such crisis moments first-hand, but that doesn't mean we can't write about them. And I hope this post helps you do just that.