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The One Change Chicago Fire Makes To Keep Its Fires From Being Too Realistic

Special effects on television are worlds away from what they were 50 years ago, with CGI taking over in ways most people probably don’t even notice. But something that hasn’t changed over the decades is how hard fire is to replicate, which means real flames are often used. So you can imagine that the NBC drama Chicago Fire has it particularly rough, and the show’s crew makes a dedicated effort to make the infernos as similar to real-life situations as possible. But there’s one thing that just isn’t feasible when it comes to aiming for realism: the smoke.

Chicago Fire technical advisor and former firefighter Steve “Chik” Chikerotis says that though all set pieces are made with everyone’s safety in mind, this is still a TV show about one of the most dangerous jobs that people can take, and they want to convey that danger with the most genuine recreations as possible. But damn, that smoke can be a nuisance. Here’s how he put it.

The only exception—and this is what firefighters will call me on all the time, but they get it—is that the smoke is 90 percent less than in an actual incident. If you shut your eyes right now, that’s our visibility in an average fire. It wouldn’t be a television show; it’d be a radio show. So we have to lighten up the smoke. Everything else is very accurate. Sometimes we tone things down from real events that have happened, because real life would not be believable to people.

Even if you’re an actor or stuntman making more-than-decent wages on a primetime TV show, it’d be really hard not to complain if you had to go through fire-filled scenes where the smoke was so thick you’re not sure if you’re facing the camera on your mark or if you’re in a completely different room. I mean, it’d still be easy to gripe about the heat and the discomfort and the heat, but at least you can look someone in directly in the eye as your woes are vocalized. (This is also a really good example of how fictional media shouldn’t be viewed as extreme realism by audiences.)

Check out this particular scene, and picture it with 90% more smoke.

Impossible. Unlike many instances where TV shows and movies change facts while telling stories, getting rid of excess smoke when it’s not needed is an inarguably great decision by the Chicago Fire team. And presumably everyone else who has to deal with giant fires on a regular basis in the entertainment biz.

As one of Dick Wolf’s many Chicago-based dramas on NBC (with more spinoffs undoubtedly on the way), Chicago Fire certainly has a shot to keep its smoke-lessened flames on the air for many more years, and Chik Chikerotis made a point to AV Club to show why this show’s chances are better than some of the other servicemen dramas on the air.

Police shows have a hard time finding new material. They’re recycling things that have been done for years and years and years. We haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg. We have enough storylines that we’ll probably run out at about season 30.

Strong words, though it wouldn’t be mindblowing if NBC ended up keeping it on the air for 30 years. But in the here and now, Chicago Fire aired its Season 4 finale earlier tonight, and you know that we’ll be getting more of it, as Season 5 is set to burn up more of your emotions when the fall rolls around. Check out our summer TV schedule to see what else you can find premiering in the meantime.

Nick Venable
Nick Venable

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.