By Jeff Hodges
When Smoky Mike and I started shooting fires, we had to sleep in one of the fire trucks or get left behind. We’d snooze until all hell broke loose and then roar off into a cacophonous landscape of fire and smoke—if we were lucky. After all, it was reality television and we needed action.
The producers started by putting us into a firehouse in Queens—one of the busiest in the city—but the problem was that 99 percent of the calls were false alarms. That was our introduction to the strange paradox of firefighting: If your job is to fight/shoot fires, don’t you want a lot of fires to happen? And if fires destroy property and kill people, does that make you a bad person?
After that Sisyphean experience, we moved up to the Bronx where we got some good fires. Once, we ended up on the roof of a blazing tenement where a bunch of firefighters were trying to cut a hole big enough to release the flames from below—a common technique for controlling a fire. They seemed to be having a tough time of it, and Smoky Mike observed that the roof was getting hot and we had little fires starting up all around us. This irked one of the firemen, who asked us if we were scared. We told him we were having too much fun to be scared, and right then a pillar of flame shot heavenward through the hole with a biblical fury that made believers of us all.
Smoky Mike got his name up there in the Bronx. We were at a fire that started in a bodega and moved up through the building. We were shooting from the street when the firemen began breaking windows and tossing out furniture. In the baptism of burning debris that rained down on us I dubbed my partner “Smoky Mike”—a sobriquet that followed him into many other walks of life.
People in poor neighborhoods don’t like firemen. They throw stuff down and yell epithets. Firemen say the best time for fires is when the welfare checks come in—folks start partying and get careless with cigarettes and candles. And also, bitter cold—when open ovens become fireplaces.
Eventually, we left New York and followed fires to Philadelphia and Detroit. We shot big fires and little fires, fires set in anger and revenge, fires where we stepped over charred bodies, fires where babies and pets were carried down ladders by burly men who turned around and went right back up into the flames. We shot a house fire in Philly where a woman stood weeping over the loss of a thousand dollars she’d won in the numbers game—until a fireman walked out of the smoke with a coffee can in his hands.
The flames had already been extinguished in the worst fire we experienced. We had just arrived in Detroit—“a good fire town”—and were hustled to a shotgun shack in a god-forsaken neighborhood where five children had died the day before in a fire caused by their father, who had been thawing frozen pipes with rolled up newspapers. He’d gotten word that there were some copper pipes to be stolen and had hurried off, leaving a newsprint torch still smoldering under the house. The children couldn’t get out and died from smoke inhalation. We walked through the house with a fire marshal who said that the oldest girl had gone from window to window trying to pry the metal bars off with a hammer and that they had all been found huddled together by the front door. As we stood in silence, feeling the ghosts of those lost souls billowing around us, the father crept in and began rummaging through the rooms and gathering up his belongings. When we asked him if he had anything to say to the camera, he asked us what the hell was he supposed to say after he’d killed his whole family?
Nobody had an answer to that question.