Future Tense

The Weather Channel’s New Wildfire Simulation Is Terrifying. But Maybe It’ll Help Save Lives.

A firefighter battles a wildfire.
A firefighter monitors a back fire while battling the Mendocino Complex fire in August near Lodoga, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Weather Channel’s natural disaster simulation segment is back, and it’s scarier than most apocalyptic Hollywood movies.

The new simulation begins with presenter Stephanie Abrams standing in the middle of a peaceful forest. As she’s explaining how embers from a campfire or a tossed cigarette can cause a firestorm, flames suddenly explode from behind her, and deer bolt in all directions. You hear wood cracking, wind hissing, and firetrucks wailing. Then the scene changes into a typical suburban West Coast neighborhood—but completely engulfed in the firestorm, with rows of houses and trees burning.

“Residents could have a few hours to only a few minutes to escape to safety,” Abrams says. “Now hopefully your neighborhood will never be in the path of a wildfire like this one.”

The fire simulation is the network’s latest segment that uses immersive mixed reality technology to “improve the public’s understanding of weather phenomena and its impacts on their daily lives,” according to a press release from the Weather Channel. In June, it showed presenter Jim Cantore standing in the devastating aftermath of a tornado. Just last month, we saw a striking simulation of Hurricane Florence submerging an entire street. As Slate writer Rachel Withers put it, the segment was “an upgrade on the standard topographic inundation map—and a powerfully sobering use of technology.”

There’s no doubt these nightmarish simulations are cool, but one of their goals is to persuade viewers to take safety warnings more seriously. Though reasons vary according to the situation, people often don’t listen to warnings because they don’t have money, transportation, or a place to go, said Cassandra Shivers-Williams, a research associate at Howard University, on Inside Science. Others feel like they physically can’t escape or are obligated to take care of family who might be left behind.

Through a research project conducted at Hofstra University, researchers found that participants felt “emotional impacts” from seeing a natural disaster through virtual reality goggles, Newsday reported in May. “Researchers have shown that it’s not necessarily about more information, but about meaningful information,” said Gina Eosco, a risk communication expert with Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs, told the newspaper. It “may help make weather risks come alive and feel more believable.”

The dramatic weather simulations might be too over the top for some viewers, but they may serve a critical purpose when people come face to face with an actual severe weather emergency. And since climate change promises even more severe weather events, we’ll need all the warnings we can get.