Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on March 1, 2017.

Getting Fire Right

In Manchester by the Sea, Hollywood avoids its usual myths about fire—and the results are moving & profound

Fire safety advocates are often critical of Hollywood’s depictions of various aspects of fire, because those images can create misperceptions in the public’s mind. For example, in the movies it’s common during a fire to see every fire sprinkler in a building go off when, in reality, only the sprinklers closest to the fire would activate. In action flicks, cars collide and burst into flames, a result that doesn’t happen easily or often. As implausible as those depictions can seem when we stop to actually think about them, some of those movie-generated myths can be difficult to reverse.

But one current movie gets fire right. In the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea<, we see the very real, painful, and long-term impact fire can have on an individual, a family, and a community. A moving depiction of catastrophe and its fallout, Manchester by the Sea was recently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. It is an excellent reminder that fire is still a big problem with the power to destroy lives.

According to the most recent home structure fire report from NFPA, U.S. fire departments respond to an estimated 358,300 home structure fires each year. These fires cause an annual average of 2,560 civilian deaths, 12,720 civilian fire injuries, and $6.7 billion in direct property damage. We know that the majority of fires, fire deaths, and fire injuries happen in homes, the place people feel safest. While these numbers are down considerably over the last couple of decades, they are not insignificant. But all they are is a set of numbers, and numbers can’t tell the whole human story.

Manchester by the Sea puts a compelling, sobering human face to those statistics. Set in a small Massachusetts coastal community, Manchester is the story of Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), a young, divorced janitor who is willed guardianship of his teenaged nephew when his brother dies. To describe Lee as haunted would be understatement; years earlier, his life unraveled in the blink of an eye when he forgot to put a screen in front of the fireplace in his home before walking to a neighborhood store, as his wife and young children slept. Fire statistics cannot capture Lee’s pain over the devastation that ensued, or his thoughts as he watched flames leap from every window of his house. The numbers don’t capture the impact on Lee of being ostracized by the community he grew up in and where he planned to raise his own family.

Before I saw it, I’d heard the movie contained references to fire, but I was surprised to find that they weren’t fleeting but rather the underpinning of the film. Although it is tempered with sporadic humor, the movie is dark, sad, heavy, and realistic. Contained in that reality is a lesson that isn’t often addressed in movies or any other form of media: the danger of complacency.

Complacency is one of the greatest challenges we face in fire prevention. With the number of structure fires falling in the last few decades thanks to codes and standards, widespread use of smoke alarms, public education, and other factors, the public now pays far less attention to fire safety—people don’t think fire can happen to them. I’m sure most people, like Lee, rarely if ever think that their homes and loved ones can be destroyed in an instant by fire. Most people can’t understand the profound individual pain and anguish behind every fire statistic until it happens to them, to their family, or to their neighbors.

The movie is a stark reminder that we have not yet solved the fire problem. Real people are behind those statistics, and we must all remain vigilant in our quest to eliminate fire loss—a reminder that, this time at least, Hollywood has made painfully clear.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of outreach and advocacy for NFPA.