Author Interviews
5:55 am
Sun January 13, 2013

Deserts, Coal Walking And Wildfires: Can You Take The 'Heat'?

Originally published on Sun January 13, 2013 10:30 am

Scientist and writer Bill Streever is fascinated by the extremes at both ends of the thermometer. In his 2009 book, Cold, he visited some of the chilliest places on Earth. And in his latest book, he treks through Death Valley, investigates fire-based weaponry and walks on coals — all to gain insight into what it means to be hot. Really hot.

Streever joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about his book, Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places. In addition to learning fun facts about fire, Streever says he wants readers to come away with the feeling, "It's OK to explore my curiosity about the world."


Interview Highlights

On surviving a wildfire in a fire shelter

"A fire shelter is a foil cross between a sleeping bag and a tent. And if you are fighting a fire and things go wrong, the wind changes directions or something happens and suddenly you are threatened with being overwhelmed by the flames, you have a chance of surviving if you have a place where there's a small opening ... and you crawl into this tent. And you can deploy ... and be inside of these fire shelters in seconds. And then, if luck is with you, the fire would burn over you — burn over your position — and you would be absolutely terrified and probably at least somewhat burned, if not badly burned, but still alive, inside the bag. And these fire shelters have saved the lives of many, many wildland firefighters over the years."

On the lives lost in 1979's Spanish Ranch Fire

"Several people did die in the Spanish Ranch Fire. They did not have fire shelters. And it was that fire that led to a rule, at least in California, that all wildland firefighters would always, on the job, have a fire shelter strapped to their belt."

On the physics of fire walking

"If you understand the physics of it, it's real simple. For the most part it can be explained the same way we talk about holding a hot potato ... [Toss] it in the air, so you don't have a lot of contact time. And fire walking really works the same way."

On the experience of walking across hot coals

"Well, first of all, it wasn't that hot to actually walk on the coals. Where the heat comes in is when you're right up next to the fire, and the heat was really, absolutely present. But then you step onto the coals, and really what my feet were feeling was more of a sense of, almost like walking on popcorn — kind of a crunchy sense. And I did my five or six paces across the coals, and it was just incredibly exhilarating for me. ...

"I think it's something that you just don't think you should be able to do. And you do it and it turns out that, 'Hey, that wasn't that tough.' And that's really the corporate team-builder message and, to some degree, the spiritualism."

On Heat and climate change

"One message I would sort of like to see people take away from Heat, and I wanted this from Cold as well, is that ... we can talk about climate change without it having to be a sort of club-to-the-head message. Climate change is with us; I think that can be a message in books, in media, in the background, just like a streetcar passing in the street in a scene in a movie behind the main characters — that's a part of life."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bill Streever's new book is called "Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places," and it starts with a simple adventure: getting close to a lit candlestick.

BILL STREEVER: (Reading) Quickly this time, I move my palm down in the candle's flame. I hold a world of pain in the palm of my hand.

MARTIN: On the one to ten medical pain scale, Bill Streever rates this feeling as an 11.

STREEVER: (Reading) After two seconds, I am standing in a mild panic. By three seconds, I command my right hand to hold my left hand in place. At five seconds, I pull away from the candle. I plunge my hand into a bowl of snow. The pain drops from somewhere near 11 to something manageable - a nine, a seven, a three. I stare at the candle flame and I realize that today is the day I begin to understand heat.

MARTIN: Streever is a scientist and a writer. His last book, "Cold," concentrated on the bottom of the thermometer. "Heat" is a tour of the earth's hottest places, fuels, experiences and professions. From the dirty and dangerous work of coal mining to the making of the hydrogen bomb. One of his first stops explores the wildfires of California where firefighters battle intense flames that can turn on them at a moment's notice. He explains something called a fire shelter, a last chance for a trapped firefighter to come out alive.

STREEVER: It's a foil cross between a sleeping bag and a tent. And if you are fighting a fire and something happens and suddenly you were threatened with being overwhelmed by the flames, you have a chance of surviving if you can find a place where there's a small opening with maybe a little bit less fuel and you crawl into this tent and you can deploy these fire shelters in seconds and be inside of these fire shelters in seconds. And then if luck is with you, the fire would burn over you, burn over your position. And you would be absolutely terrified and probably at least somewhat burned, if not badly burned, but still alive inside the bag. And these fire shelters have saved the lives of many, many wild land firefighters over the years.

MARTIN: But you also tell the story in your book of some firefighters who tragically lost their lives in one of these big wildfires.

STREEVER: Well, that's exactly right - the Spanish Ranch Fire. And, you know, I guess I'm attracted to extremes and oftentimes extremes put people in really tough conditions. And several people did die in the Spanish Ranch Fire. They did not have fire shelters. And it was that fire that led to a rule, at least in California, that all wild land firefighters would always have a fire shelter strapped to their belt.

MARTIN: Fire walking is a theme that kind of threads its way throughout the book. This is, of course, this ancient art that has become something found at corporate retreats. What is the fascination with walking on fire do you think?

STREEVER: You know, I think the fascination, for me anyway, is that it just doesn't make sense that it's something you would do. I mean, and if you understand the physics of it, it's real simple. It, for the most part, it can be explained the same way we talk about holding a hot potato and we sort of toss it in the air so you don't have a lot of contact time. And you can tell yourself that, but stand in front of that fire pit and tell yourself that and feel like you're not about to do something completely crazy, that's a different story.

MARTIN: So, what was it like for you, besides hot?

STREEVER: Yeah, besides hot. Well, first of all, it wasn't that hot to actually walk on the coals. Where the heat comes in is when you're right up next to the fire. And the heat was really absolutely present. But then you step onto the coals, and really what my feet were feeling was more a sense of almost like walking on popcorn, kind of a crunchy sense. I did my five or six paces across the coals, and it was just incredibly exhilarating for me. And I walked across it once and I went right back around and got back in line. And I think I did it five times before the instructor said, hey, Bill, I think you've done it enough, so....

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: This, of course, follows another book that you have written called "Cold." So, clearly, you are interested in the extremes. Is this a helpful way for us to understand temperature by focusing on the opposite ends of the thermometer?

STREEVER: Well, it was helpful to me, and I had even more fun writing "Heat" than I had writing "Cold."

MARTIN: Why? What's fun about heat that's not about cold?

STREEVER: There are probably a lot of things. But one thing is that's such a larger range. So, with cold just sort of have from freezing down to absolute zero that you can play with. With heat, you have sort of room temperature all the way up to - in the book - up to seven trillion degrees Fahrenheit. So, big, big range to play with then lots of things to do along the way, like, well, obviously, talking about climate change but also fire walking and wandering around in deserts and things that happened to people in deserts and forest fires and house fires. And to anyone who likes to think about the world and is curious about the world, lots of really fun things to explore and to do along the way.

MARTIN: The book is called "Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places." Bill Streever joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Bill, thanks so much for talking with us.

STREEVER: Thank you. That was great. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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