In the very first week after a dynamic brush fire broke out in October 2019 near the Getty Center in Los Angeles, more than one hundred videos were uploaded to YouTube. News, opinions, testimonies, explanatory videos, and even gaming videos spread like wildfire on YouTube, competing for an audience. Some of these videos suggested that the fire would destroy one of the most important and iconic art institutions in California, the Getty Center, after which the fire was named, even though the Getty was never actually at risk. This manifold material mirrors how different communication cultures share the most influential online video platform, YouTube, as well as specific aesthetics and narratives related to the medium itself and the very topic of a California brush fire.
The present article focuses on how wildfire is mediatized as a narrative of disaster by organizations and individuals through sharing spectacular images, spreading founded and unfounded fears, and focusing on individual stories, anecdotes, and ephemeral distractions, without any substantial contribution to long-term environmental debates. The critical question is: Why do popular aesthetics and narratives of disaster fail to contribute to long-term ecological debates? A preliminary content analysis focusing on the Californian cultural context shows that the Getty Fire had all the ingredients to become a global story but—at least in the most popular media—without sparking knowledge-based ecological debates. In comparison, other wildfires with a minor degree of politicization have been mediated with a higher degree of knowledge-based public engagement.
On a theoretical level, this article poses the thesis that wildfires trigger different media reactions and narratives depending on cultural, political, and historical specifics.
On the night of October 28, 2019, a brush fire started in the suburban neighborhood of Brentwood, in Los Angeles. The fire lasted eight days, until its total containment on November 5, destroying 745 acres (301 hectares), burning down ten houses, and leaving five firefighters injured. It wasn’t as devastating as previous wildfires, such as the 2017 Skirball Fire (named after the Skirball Cultural Center, which is also located in Los Angeles) or the extremely destructive 2018 Woolsey Fire, but it still became a global media event for at least one week. Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD 2019) investigators determined that “[t]he [Getty] fire was deemed an accidental start, caused by a tree branch that broke off and subsequently landed in nearby power lines during high wind conditions. This errant tree branch caused the sparking and arcing of power lines, igniting nearby brush. All power lines on the pole remained intact.” This was determined to be the “preliminary cause of the fire by using burn patterns, witness statements, and physical evidence.” (LAFD 2019) The visual evidence that circulated in the media was a dashcam video record showing the electrical arc that supposedly started everything (ABC7 2019a; ABC10 News 2019; Los Angeles Times 2019). But despite this tempting visual proof of simple causality, the real origin of the Getty Fire was not a single event. The LAFD description above points to an accidental start that occurred in combination with high wind conditions. However, wildfires in California have become more common in the last decade, largely due to climate change. The conditions that contribute to wildfires are created by a combination of factors. Since, in the public discourse, the nature and origins of wildfires tend to be over-simplified, with the fires themselves being considered as the results of isolated and accidental events, ignorance often paves the way for misinformation and politization. In several ill-informed tweets, former US President Donald Trump blamed firefighters and California authorities for supposedly poor forest management (tweets from November 10 and 11, 2019). Leverkus et al. (2020) have pleaded for a science-based public debate that avoids the biased opinions of politicians, since those opinions often only contribute to further misinformation. There is much more scientific knowledge stored about the origins of wildfires, their behavior, and their ecological consequences than the public comes to know about through the most popular media—and especially through new media. As Leverkus et al. mention, major wildfires, such as the Yellowstone fires of 1988 or the southern Australian fires of 2009, have produced “a vast body of knowledge that politicians are disregarding in favor of [unfounded] opinions” (Leverkus et al. 2020, p. 417). Scholar Olivia Lazard points out that major fires on the West Coast of the US are also the result of ecological disintegration in the Amazon (Lazard 2020).
Global factors are obviously contributing to these unprecedented wildfires, but most fires are still regarded as purely local events. We could say, in Aristotelian terms, that wildfires are not a matter of accident but of substance, and I would add that wildfires belong to an ontological category that common people instinctively refuse to understand, which leads to a noxious normalization of a global issue by means of mental vagueness. Wildfires are unavoidable, but their increased destructive power is due to factors related to human agency in our present geological era, which is now widely known as the Anthropocene (Crutzen/Stoermer 2000; see also Leinfelder/Crutzen 2012). The cultural history of wildfires in California, as written by Stephen Pyne (2015), reveals how little the general public knows about the agency of this natural force. Wildfires can be considered almost an ontological peculiarity of California and many other regions of the world. But can we say that the public is being informed about the difference between the “good” agency of fire and the catastrophic consequences of unprecedented—but meanwhile common—wildfires for vegetation, animals, humans, and the planetary ecosystem? Isn’t an event with global impact, such as the Getty Fire, a suitable starting point for talking about long-term ecological issues in popular media? The following overview provides some insight into these questions.
For the present preliminary research, the author relies partly on a free hermeneutical approach and partly on a typological analysis of the first 100 videos published after the Getty Fire broke out on the evening of October 29, 2019. Free hermeneutics are needed to enhance our knowledge about the complex cultural context within which wildfires are embedded. In this analysis, historical and cultural specifics are taken into account, as are aesthetics, and some theoretical remarks pertaining to media are made. The typological approach focuses on the deduction of categories depending on the aesthetics and semiotics of the videos under analysis. This mixed method allows for a deep, structured interpretation of the selected material, which paves the way for further content analyses and even for quantitative analyses.
The video corpus was created by searching the keyword “Getty Fire” on YouTube—i.e., the label mass media applied to the wildfire in question—and then sorting the findings in chronological order. The browser used for retrieving the needed data was Chrome. All cache data were deleted prior to starting the search function. At the time of retrieving the data, the author was in Germany. In this brief research report, only the videos referenced in the paper have been added to the bibliography. For data consistency, only the author of this paper was involved in the hermeneutical analysis of the video material (on YouTube) and new media material (e.g., Tweets).
Most videos produced and uploaded to the internet immediately after the fire broke out can be put into the following categories: official reports; short-term investigative journalism; frontline videos; evacuation stories; series of anecdotal moments; sequences of infernal images as first-person testimonials (i.e., “I was there too” videos); and (after the main danger was over) even entertainment or virtual action videos. Let me focus on the first four, which predominate by far, before turning to those action-based, anecdotal, and entertainment videos that appeal to an emotional level of understanding.
While the aesthetics of these videos depends on multiple factors, one thing is certain: The choices pertaining to setting and scenery are interesting decisions related to the media preferences of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office. The emergency setting, with a dynamic informational flow shot in exterior, evokes the idea that some kind of heroic action is taking place. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti clearly has suitable rooms for organizing a press conference at the LA City Hall, yet he decided, as a supportive and more impressive media gesture, to be near the firefighters (e.g., ABC10 2019b, 2019c; NBCLA 2019) and the people being evacuated. In this sense, the specific locations were fire stations and evacuation centers. Following the main argument of Marvin Carlson (1999, p. 6) concerning the placement of theaters in cities, locations that display the semiotic of the city “as a text created by human beings in space, spoken by and speaking to those who inhabit it, move through it and observe it” can be considered “places of performance.” The evacuation centers, the fire station, or the presence of firefighters and officials in the background all create a space of emergency detached from any local signature, almost a non-place (“non-lieu”), in the words of Marc Augé, similar to an airport or a train station. The place where emergency is negotiated is detached from any anthropological or cultural concerns beyond the specific idea of human action against the elements.
Short Investigative Journalism
Even if the videos in this category are not very elaborate, most of them provide testimonials or visual proof of how a broken branch that landed on the electrical power lines could have started the fire (cf. ABC7 2019a; ABC10 News 2019; KTLA 2019; Los Angeles Times 2019). The structure of such videos is quite simple. It consists of an appealing title that already points to the possible origins of the brush fire, as well as a narrated sequence with a brief exposition as a point of attack that raises the primary and most simplified question: How did the fire start? Even if several factors are mentioned, the visual proof recorded by a dashcam that seems to show a sparking event on the roadside becomes the central motif or even the climax of evidence as an entity constructed in those YouTube videos. The sequence is repeated several times in slow motion to provide ample evidence. However, the recorded event is a singular and insufficient explanation that inadvertently casts aside the idea that the brush fire was avoidable. The audience seems to be accustomed to simplified narratives of disaster, as we can infer from firefighting films—from Fire! (1901) to Brave are the Fallen (2020)—, where the primary plot is devoted to rescue activities or the personal fates of individuals. Journalistic media produce similar narratives, as cultural mirrors of the society they belong to, making it difficult to escape the vicious circle of perception as narration.
Frontline and Aftermath Videos
Local broadcasters uploaded some videos interviewing people who tried to save their homes. Some of those videos consist of a montage of partly or fully burnt houses and short interviews with homeowners after the danger had almost passed. However, there is also raw material showing the fire’s violence (e.g., ABC7 2019b; ABC10 2019a; CBS Los Angeles 2019a). This type of video creates a dense narrative about upper-class Angelenos’ efforts to save their homes, providing solid dramatic momentum, even if we do not have enough information from the published videos to assume that this extreme situation is one that happens very often.
One interesting point that this great variety of media comes close to omitting entirely is that the evacuation center was only used by a few people during the fire. This was due to the above-average level of wealth of most Brentwood residents. Only a small number of people ever needed to spend the night in the improvised shelter that was set up. Under such circumstances, reporters from different broadcasting companies looked for stories that fulfilled the social expectations of a wildfire with evacuated individuals, families with children, and concerned citizens (CBS Los Angeles 2019b, 2019c, 2019d). Several broadcasters, such as KABC, CBSN, or ABC7, did many interviews, but only aired a few specific stories. Among the videos shot at the Brentwood Evacuation Center, one is particularly significant (CBS Los Angeles 2019b): two older adults from the same neighborhood were filmed together sitting and waiting. One of them narrated the first moments of the fire in a very vivid way, including how firefighters evacuated her and her friend in the middle of the night, with no time to take even a small bag with them. They were indeed the most vulnerable persons affected by the evacuation, and their situation would have been an excellent starting point for a debate about climate refugees’ social and generational differences in a rich country. However, such stories stopped being produced and propagated almost immediately after they were broadcast.
Anecdotal Stories and Entertainment
One example of an anecdotal story is the CBS video of a man walking along the I-405 freeway during the fire (CBS Los Angeles 2019e). According to the comments to this video, the surrealistic scene was sometimes considered a symbol of boldness, and at other times was viewed as representing an endemic lack of perception of an imminent danger.
A rare but significant category within this context is the production of action or entertainment videos by YouTubers. The YouTuber named GMAntonZ created a gaming narrative based on a GTA video game mod to virtual fight the flames of the Getty Fire from his computer (GMAntonZ 2019).
Absence of Science Communicators
Why were science communicators with an eco-critical perspective missing? Wasn’t the Getty Fire, like other previous brush fires in California, a global event worth talking about? Or were there not enough popular science communicators on YouTube to take a position at the time? The answer may lay in the velocity of short-video production and the storytelling culture that rules even science communication video production (Muñoz Morcillo et al. 2016, 2019). But what about the role of the specific culture and history of California? Let’s take a closer look at this in the concluding discussion section.
In the videos published on YouTube after the Getty Fire broke out, there are almost no references to climate change issues, just as there is almost no self-reflective public engagement or critical dialogue. As the fire devastated mountain vegetation at high speed, media producers propagated a large variety of emergency narratives, yet without devoting any time to deep reflection or targeted discussions about the meaning and the origins of what was happening. The reason behind this urgent attitude seems to be the very narrative and dynamic nature of ephemeral, appealing, and snippy new media, especially regarding short web videos. Indeed, the mimetic momentum of the short medium à la McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) is entangled in a superordinate, inertial structure of social and aesthetic expectations.
A symptomatic example of this is the spontaneous creation of a benevolent and ingenious web of reactions to celebrity tweets. “The Getty Art is in danger” was one of the common—and unfounded—throw-away topics that circulated at that time, but tweets by Arnold Schwarzenegger and LeBron James, both prominent residents of Brentwood, also became, within seconds, viral initiators of meta-stories of emergency. Schwarzenegger, who had to evacuate at 3:30 am, exhorted his neighbors to leave their homes as well, to follow instructions, and to not “screw around” (Arnold@Schwarzenegger 2019). Many responses to his tweet are film quotations or evoke situations from his most famous movies: “Come with me if you want to live” (Terminator 2); “Do it now” and “I’ll be back” (The Terminator); “Get to the choppa” (Predator); “Astalavista” [sic!] (Terminator 2); and also, “Interesting. You told firemen to ‘get out’ in Terminator 3.” This effort at saying something ingenious or amusing, or simply creating new, even if expendable, narrative contexts and associations, is a good fit with this paper’s central argument. Indeed, only a couple of people on Twitter used their responses to remind people that this fire, like many others, was linked to human-made climate change, and that not only humans are in danger: “remember the animals.” The videos uploaded to YouTube follow similar action and narrative patterns: people defending or losing their homes, the situation at the evacuation center, raw video material shared on social media or uploaded to YouTube, anecdotal scenes, updates about the efforts to contain the fire, Mayor Garcetti’s assessments and forecast of the situation, and even a GTA 5 firefighter mod video simulating a wildfire near the Getty Center (GMAntonZ 2019).
All these pictures and interviews are metaphors of the flames’ fiery dynamics as they devour trees and houses at incredible speed. Instead of imitating the fire in the way they produce and consume news, media producers and YouTube creators could have instead stimulated a critical dialogue about the relation we have to wildfire stories. It is undoubtedly difficult to “cogitate” when surrounded by flames, but once the fire was contained, the flow of emergency news stopped, without any serious debate having taken place about what really happened. ‘Why should we still talk about it?’ the media producers seemed to be saying. ‘We already know the end of the story.’ The fire was contained, and the LAPD units involved in this fight were celebrated as heroes of the week. There is no better closing scene for a disaster movie than one that provides the public with a feeling of safety. Public appearances of politicians surrounded by emergency teams, such as those of Mayor Garcetti (e.g., ABC10 2019b, 2019c; NBCLA 2019), create the fiction of safety (cf. Krieger 2021). Indeed, Hollywood’s commercial producers tend to avoid open endings that spark second thoughts in viewers’ minds. Exactly the same thing happened with the Getty Fire, at least on YouTube: there were no second thoughts or reflections, just an indefinite pause before the next disaster movie, also set in a burning California, would begin. However, deep inside, we know that this wasn’t a happy ending. YouTube might not be the promised land of critical public discourse. However, the creation of public discourse is not a technological issue, but a cultural one.
It also isn’t the responsibility of the LAFD to stimulate critical discourse about the role of climate change in the proliferation and frequency of devastating wildfires. LAFD firefighters and officers are very busy coordinating teams and citizens in their efforts to put out fires and save lives. It is more likely that this kind of discourse could be fostered by the media, including popular new media such as YouTube, where dozens of videos were uploaded during the first week after the Getty Fire became a global topic. But such a discourse never took form, at least not on YouTube.
Dana Goodyear (2019) has criticized the California dream of never-ending good weather as being based on a lie. She recalls that the houses built in the Crestwood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles belong to a utopian ideal, as do all houses built in the mountains of California. One firefighter allegedly told her: “Fire belongs in the mountains. It’s healthy. The one thing that doesn’t belong here is us.” Maybe some parts of California are indeed supposed to burn, as wildfire historian Stephen Pyne states. Similarly, in a Wired article, Matt Simon (2019) wrote that “it’s no coincidence that these wildfires are all burning at once. Climate change has stolen the rain that normally would rehydrate the state at this time of year.” He also quotes the wildfire historian Stephen Pyne (e.g., 2015), who defines the combination of climate change and land misuse as the Pyrocene, a “sort of Ice Age, but with flames.” Simon lets us know that there is no definitive solution for avoiding wildfires. Still, he suggests that we should at least pay some attention to the company whose obsolete equipment sparked at least 17 major wildfires in 2017 alone, including the devastating Kincade Fire: Pacific Gas & Electric.
The Pacific Gas & Electric Company is in many respects responsible for an outdated and dangerous infrastructure. Some of the investigative videos considered in this essay point in this direction (cf. ABC10 News 2019; ABC7 2019a; KTLA 2019; Los Angeles Times 2019). All the same, people living in the California mountains also need drinking water and electrical power. Debates have been ongoing, but these are less present in popular new media such as YouTube and Twitter. Indeed, the most discussed topics in connection with the Getty Fire had more to do with individual fates and “potential” cultural destruction than with the complexity of climate change and the human factors related to it. The most provocative topic discussed in the media during the Getty Fire was probably the morbid anticipation of a cultural catastrophe (e.g., Li 2019): Were the Getty’s art collections and its precious archives in danger?
The name of the fire itself implied that the Getty Center alone—instead of the whole neighborhood of Brentwood—was at risk, even though the Getty Center wasn’t in danger at any time. However, the popular imagery of burning art institutions was easy to stimulate. It was surely the kairós, the “suitable moment,” to talk about it. This kairós was, for the most part, historically and culturally motivated, since some very impactful fire events had occurred in the recent history of California and the Americas. Indeed, in November 2018, Manfred Heiting’s massive photographic archives went up in flames in Malibu’s Woolsey Fire. Brazil’s National Museum—the most important scientific and historical museum in the country, as well as the oldest—also burned down, in September 2018, after years of structural neglect. T. J. Demos emphasizes the suggestive violence of cultural institutions in flames when he states, “the museum’s destruction seemed to foretell the catastrophe of the soon-to-be with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, who expresses a deep nostalgia for the country’s erstwhile military dictatorship and has openly threatened genocide against Indigenous peoples who stand in the way of his extractive plans for the Amazon—for environmentalists, the planet’s lungs; for Indigenous peoples, Mother Earth.” (Demos 2019) Nothing similar was to be expected during the Getty Fire, but it seems that natural disasters become a real ontological threat for humanity when culture, as an expression of a high and advanced civilization, is under attack by “uncontrollable” natural forces.
The Getty Center, to which the Getty Museum belongs, had already survived the Skirball Fire two years before the Getty Fire, and the Getty Center buildings designed by Richard Meier even served, during both fires, as a shelter for firefighters, with Getty staff assisting with the logistics of fire engines and helicopter operations. It is indeed a piece of luck for the Angelenos that the Getty Center was built to withstand fires and earthquakes, thereby helping preserve art and lives. In view of the morbid nihilistic aesthetics of disaster depicted in most U.S. media, the Getty Trust was prompted to clarify that the treasures of the Getty Museum were not under threat. In looking only at YouTube, we cannot clearly determine if they succeeded in stopping the idea of the Getty Center burning in people’s imaginations.
Even weeks later, most material uploaded under the keyword “Getty Fire” were images of the flames approaching the iconic institution. There is some kind of popular fascination at play here. The devastating force of wildfires captured in YouTube videos belongs to the realm of the Kantian “dynamically sublime,” an old aesthetic category for a new phenomenon.
The feeling of the dynamically sublime overwhelms us when we experience nature as being fear-inducing while knowing ourselves to be in safety. In Kant’s words, “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature.” (Kant 2000: §28, pp. 261-262) The Getty Fire was also a story about superiority over nature. Immediately after some media began spreading the idea that the Getty collections might be threatened by the fire, the Getty Trust hurried to explain to the public, in a cross-media effort (Hay 2019; Shamberg/Stephan 2019), how the Getty Center was built and why the art was safer there than elsewhere in the world. However, the discourse on cultural heritage and natural (or accidental) disasters hasn’t evolved in the new media beyond the ephemeral structure of the type of storytelling that people are accustomed to consuming. Even on YouTube, news is conceived as an entanglement of social and staged activity. Indeed, during the Getty Fire, the discourse on cultural conditionality and its relation to natural or accidental disasters evolved, in the best-case scenarios, through media other than TV or YouTube. The present overview has provided ample evidence to support this assertion.
About the Author: Jesús Muñoz Morcillo, classical philologist and art historian, is research fellow and lecturer at the Institut für Kunst- und Baugeschichte at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). He studied in Salamanca, Würzburg, and Karlsruhe, and was research fellow at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles thanks to a postdoctoral grant from the Volkswagen Foundation (September 2019 to June 2020). From March 2019 until his research stay in the U.S., he was acting spokesperson of the ZAK | Centre for Cultural and General Studies at KIT. His recent publications include the edited volume Genealogy of Popular Science. From Ancient Ecphrasis to Virtual Reality (2020, transcript) and the monograph La ékfrasis griega, de la Antigüedad a Bizancio (2021, Peter Lang). Currently, his research focuses on the reception of ancient descriptions and their influence on Renaissance visual cultures in art, literature, and science.
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YouTube and Tweeter Sources
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ABC7 (2019b): RAW: Brush fire erupts in Sepulveda Pass, threatens homes I ABC7. https://youtu.be/zMVzK2aoInE
ABC10 (2019a): Getty Fire burns in Los Angeles | Raw. https://youtu.be/nHIvD7wq0EY
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CBS Los Angeles (2019b): Getty Center Fire Evacuees Welcomed By Volunteers At Westwood Evacuation Center. https://youtu.be/KsBPirtkoI4
CBS Los Angeles (2019c): Thousands Of People Remain Under Evacuation Orders Due To Getty Fire. https://youtu.be/4Nm_do3M1_0
CBS Los Angeles (2019d): Getty Fire Assistance Center To Open For Affected Residents, All Evacuations Lifted. https://youtu.be/zVlAwgF2XTA
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