Author Interviews


Bill Streever's new book is called "Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places," and it starts with a simple adventure: getting close to a lit candlestick.

BILL STREEVER: (Reading) Quickly this time, I move my palm down in the candle's flame. I hold a world of pain in the palm of my hand.

MARTIN: On the one to ten medical pain scale, Bill Streever rates this feeling as an 11.

STREEVER: (Reading) After two seconds, I am standing in a mild panic. By three seconds, I command my right hand to hold my left hand in place. At five seconds, I pull away from the candle. I plunge my hand into a bowl of snow. The pain drops from somewhere near 11 to something manageable - a nine, a seven, a three. I stare at the candle flame and I realize that today is the day I begin to understand heat.

MARTIN: Streever is a scientist and a writer. His last book, "Cold," concentrated on the bottom of the thermometer. "Heat" is a tour of the earth's hottest places, fuels, experiences and professions. From the dirty and dangerous work of coal mining to the making of the hydrogen bomb. One of his first stops explores the wildfires of California where firefighters battle intense flames that can turn on them at a moment's notice. He explains something called a fire shelter, a last chance for a trapped firefighter to come out alive.

STREEVER: It's a foil cross between a sleeping bag and a tent. And if you are fighting a fire and something happens and suddenly you were threatened with being overwhelmed by the flames, you have a chance of surviving if you can find a place where there's a small opening with maybe a little bit less fuel and you crawl into this tent and you can deploy these fire shelters in seconds and be inside of these fire shelters in seconds. And then if luck is with you, the fire would burn over you, burn over your position. And you would be absolutely terrified and probably at least somewhat burned, if not badly burned, but still alive inside the bag. And these fire shelters have saved the lives of many, many wild land firefighters over the years.

MARTIN: But you also tell the story in your book of some firefighters who tragically lost their lives in one of these big wildfires.

STREEVER: Well, that's exactly right - the Spanish Ranch Fire. And, you know, I guess I'm attracted to extremes and oftentimes extremes put people in really tough conditions. And several people did die in the Spanish Ranch Fire. They did not have fire shelters. And it was that fire that led to a rule, at least in California, that all wild land firefighters would always have a fire shelter strapped to their belt.

MARTIN: Fire walking is a theme that kind of threads its way throughout the book. This is, of course, this ancient art that has become something found at corporate retreats. What is the fascination with walking on fire do you think?

STREEVER: You know, I think the fascination, for me anyway, is that it just doesn't make sense that it's something you would do. I mean, and if you understand the physics of it, it's real simple. It, for the most part, it can be explained the same way we talk about holding a hot potato and we sort of toss it in the air so you don't have a lot of contact time. And you can tell yourself that, but stand in front of that fire pit and tell yourself that and feel like you're not about to do something completely crazy, that's a different story.

MARTIN: So, what was it like for you, besides hot?

STREEVER: Yeah, besides hot. Well, first of all, it wasn't that hot to actually walk on the coals. Where the heat comes in is when you're right up next to the fire. And the heat was really absolutely present. But then you step onto the coals, and really what my feet were feeling was more a sense of almost like walking on popcorn, kind of a crunchy sense. I did my five or six paces across the coals, and it was just incredibly exhilarating for me. And I walked across it once and I went right back around and got back in line. And I think I did it five times before the instructor said, hey, Bill, I think you've done it enough, so....


MARTIN: This, of course, follows another book that you have written called "Cold." So, clearly, you are interested in the extremes. Is this a helpful way for us to understand temperature by focusing on the opposite ends of the thermometer?

STREEVER: Well, it was helpful to me, and I had even more fun writing "Heat" than I had writing "Cold."

MARTIN: Why? What's fun about heat that's not about cold?

STREEVER: There are probably a lot of things. But one thing is that's such a larger range. So, with cold just sort of have from freezing down to absolute zero that you can play with. With heat, you have sort of room temperature all the way up to - in the book - up to seven trillion degrees Fahrenheit. So, big, big range to play with then lots of things to do along the way, like, well, obviously, talking about climate change but also fire walking and wandering around in deserts and things that happened to people in deserts and forest fires and house fires. And to anyone who likes to think about the world and is curious about the world, lots of really fun things to explore and to do along the way.

MARTIN: The book is called "Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places." Bill Streever joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Bill, thanks so much for talking with us.

STREEVER: Thank you. That was great. Thanks.

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