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A Fire Behaviorist?

A Profiler of Elements

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 26, 2000.

There are many jobs that try to gussy themselves up by acquiring a new title. That classic, of course, is sanitation engineer for garbage man, which was once an entirely honorable occupation, if gender specific and disgusting. Calling someone an engineer who actually is not is a dangerous degradation of language, but in these cases we forgave it because, well, a garbage man doesn't get many perks and if this is necessary for the morale of this necessary job, fine. All is understood and more power to them.

There are other words I've come to hate under this category: 'activist' and 'therapist' heading the list. And there are related examples not so safe or good hearted in intent. Take an entirely new title that has appeared recently. A "Fire Behaviorist." These are people who study the likely evolution of a fire, primarily forest fires, in progress. This, for the safety of the genetically insane people who parachute into the flames and spend hundred hour stretches digging ditches and creating barriers to save both stands of great forest and the homes of those who live in or near the woods. In Southwest Colorado, they are concerned with saving the archeological heaven of cliff dwellings and related structures as a huge fire comes near. There is a trade off: the fire has nearly doubled the number of archeological sites by exposing new ones. This area is probably the most important archeological site in the nation, since the new discoveries recently affect everything from scientific understanding to existing Indian treaties. If you're at all interested in this sort of thing, Mesa Verde and environs is the place to be for the next ten years. A cold beer and shower to these people literally dicing with Death in our nation's woods saving the Mesa Verdes and those redwoods. But, back to fire behaviorist. I look at the phrase and shadows fall across it. Fire is dependent on two things: oxygen and fuel. Absent wind, it expands into the areas of least resistance. Wind is unpredictable, because even known, chronic zephyrs are disrupted by the fire itself, which creates a firestorm as it sucks in and burns oxygen. Ergo, I am leery of what it is that a fire behaviorist does or can do that common sense and experience do not provide the normal firefighter. For example, according to the news today, the wind changed and blew the fire towards an area that had a fire four years ago. It slowed down in the sparse growth. It was not predicted and, once accomplished, ought not to have been a surprise to anyone. I therefore remain puzzled and seek enlightenment. Otherwise I am left in the frame of mind that this is one of the melodramatic decisions for publicity purposes that permeate business today. "Fire is a living thing," grizzled actors tell young stars on screens both large and small. Everyone nods sagely at this idiocy. What they should say is "Fires are scary as hell," but that isn't good for screen writers needing to personalize the opponent. Ergo, we are given someone to study the life and death, breeding and family life of fire: a fire behaviorist. Fox television cannot be far behind. A new series for Christina Applegate: Kelly Bundy, Fire Behaviorist.

Far fetched, a strained attempt for laughs I'm not hearing? (This is a tough room.....need a new agent....) Look what happened to the FBI and the term profiler. What started out as an assignment to one individual to solve some grisly murders has now become sort of a magical title, with supposed superpowers, a Harry Potter as a real life occupation of clairvoyance, god like insight, and dramatic epiphanies. Have you noticed how often these people appear on television, offering insight on murders like the Ramsey case even though they have no more information than we have? And how many are titled former profilers. You'd think if they were any good, the FBI would shell out to keep such divine beings. But they are not.

A profiler is really a drudge. A profiler assembles the known facts of a case and compares it to others and based on that offers likely characteristics of the culprit. Television shows and movies leave you with the impression that this is a job of unmatched success when in reality most profiles are utterly wrong. The FBI, not one to hide its light under a bushel, makes such a big deal out of these very few people who have produced, in reality, a shockingly low success rate given their congratulatory rate, that the whole business has become distorted. About a year after the Unabomber was caught, I began to see, on the Discovery Channel no less, FBI profilers essentially taking credit for the capture. The Unabomber was nailed solely because his brother turned him in. The FBI had already interviewed and passed on him as a suspect.

Also don't forget, Richard Jewell was nailed because of a profiler. The racial drug profiling that has become such a charming occupation of police units already known for their racial blending have been a dangerous and horrible result of everyone believing there is both science and divine intervention attached to the term 'profiler.' It is a business of mathematical statistic derived from a limited number of cases, and these are only those cases involving people so stupid as to have come to the attention of the authorities. In short, profiling is a step away from phrenology, and I couldn't tell you in which direction. But back to fire behaviorist, a term that emerged into the light only after the stones went up on Storm King Mountain in 1994 in memory of deaths that must have made Joan of Arc's seem like a lethal injection. Sooner of later, mathematically, a person with that occupational title will make a prediction that will save lives, and the publicity machine will gear up and a new hero will appear on the devastated landscape. It won't matter that most of the predictions are either lame or wrong. If the same magic attends the name 'fire behaviorist' as 'profiler,' eventually lots of people will die to protect the institutional myth. It is the nature of things.