Broadcasting natural disasters - wildfires

colour photograph of an airplace spreading water over land

How the media has reported on historical wildfires across Europe

Yasemin Bağcı (opens in new window) (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision)

Would any 21st century holiday be complete without an environmental catastrophe? Fueled by climate change, extreme fires ravaged hectares of forests in the summer of 2021. In countries of southern Europe but also in unexpected places such as Finland, many forests were destroyed. This blog explores how the media has reported on historical wildfires across Europe through a selection of visual material available on Europeana.

Staged disaster photos

In the beginning of the 20th century, cameras were large and cumbersome. Press photographers used large glass plates and heavy tripods, making it a hazardous enterprise to shoot any dangerous environmental catastrophes. This is why in those years there was little action photography and most of it was staged. For example, the images of the fire damaging the green area near Birling Gap, the famous Sussex beauty spot near Eastbourne in 1932 illustrate this practice. Despite the urgency of the situation requiring immediate action, we see people standing still to look at the flames turning the vegetation into ashes.

In July 1911, fire ravaged five hectares of the French countryside, the Fontainebleau forest lying southeast of Paris. The photographs of this disaster are extremely vivid and realistic, even for our 21st century eyes.

Fighting the flames

A number of different techniques were used to fight wildfires. These blazes start small and can expand exponentially in no time, sometimes requiring cross-border cooperation to control fires over vast areas of land. Firefighters, members of the military and ordinary citizens on the ground worked together with great dedication. They used standpipes and branches, and wore asbestos suits (which were not known to be toxic in the early 20th century).

In the second half of the 20th century aerial firefighting started to be used because it had significant advantages over ground fire suppression methods. It was faster and gave access to places which were unreachable by ground. It also offered better observation of the fire situation.

Adding drama to catastrophes

To add drama to news coverage of wildfires, special soundtracks were created, reminiscent of Hitchcock thrillers. Most of these newsreels were shown in cinemas before the main feature. In some ways, these clips were consumed as entertainment and they borrowed cinematic effects to play with the public’s emotions. Here you can see some examples from Greek and Dutch reporting on forest fires, using overly epic and dramatic soundtracks.

Amplifying preventive measures

By the end of the 20th century, TV coverage of wildfires had adopted an informative tone with live reports from the scene, broadcast to large international audiences on satellite and cable television channels. Awareness about forest fires was raised on both national and international levels.

TV programmes also showcased new techniques developed to prevent wildfires. This clip focuses on the forest fire warning system called ‘Fire Watch’ set up by the Berlin-based company IQ-Wireless. This technology uses high resolution cameras that were originally developed for the observation of earth from space.

More action is needed

Today, experts like Andrew Scott argue that climate change is causing an increase in wildfires. They are concerned that global warming is changing fires’ internal dynamics, making them more dangerous for firefighters and the general population. To find solutions, Andrew Scott has stated, "We urgently need more research to help to understand how and why fires are changing—and how to deal with the new conditions. In the meantime, initiatives such as FireWise in the U.S. and FireSmart in Canada, which engage with communities to help educate and develop local community initiatives, provide information and experience about how to plan and keep safe in the event of a wildfire".

This blog is part of the editorials of Europeana Subtitled, a project which enabled audiovisual media heritage to be enjoyed and increased its use through closed captioning and subtitling.