Fight Fire with Fire…No, Really


We’ve all heard the phrase “Fight fire with fire” as a way to pay an offender back with equal force, or worse. Or if you’re a Shakespeare nerd, you would remember reading “Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;/ Threaten the threatener and outface the brow/ of bragging horror….” (King John) I think this is a more elegant way of saying how to settle things.

But one doesn’t usually think to actually fight fire with more fire. Understandably, any layman would refer to common sense, which would say, “No, dummy, that will just make things worse.” Knowing my luck, and my lack of timing, this would actually happen. But that’s what Batman did a few episodes back in DC Nation’s Beware the Batman, or rather, his partner Katana did. I saw this concept play out again this morning on another Batman cartoon, Batman the Animated Series, on the Hub. I know, I know, these are cartoons, and TV often lie to us about the workings of physics. But one often forgets that there are some genuinely thoughtful writers out there applying fascinating truths to their shows. SCIENCE!

First of all, please keep in mind that the whole concept of actually fighting fire with fire is not something lost on me. I just never sat around thinking about the logic behind it until now, and I don’t often use the phrase anyway because I’m not a naturally vindictive person. Except for when it comes to flies. I will hunt down a single fly roaming around in my house just so I won’t have to hear that buzzing noise.


You see, fire needs oxygen to keep burning. No oxygen means no more fire. That’s science 101. In Beware the Batman, Bats is facing off against a villain named Phosphorus Rex. His partner, Katana, charges into the building with a fuel tanker and unleashes the fuel onto Rex, setting it aflame. This caused Rex to shine bright for a split second and then peter out. “Fight fire with fire,” says Batman, “Smart.” In a kids’ show one usually expects someone to, in at least one line, explain why that was smart. We didn’t get it. I’m not exactly sure at what demographic these cartoons are aimed these days, but I would like to assume the writers thought that their viewers were smart enough to know why rather than hold their hands every step of the way.

This morning, while slowly waking up to the nostalgic sounds of a Batman the Animated Series episode, the “fight fire with fire” comes up again when Batman and Batgirl are trapped in a fiery inferno set up by Firefly. “There’s no way out!” yells Batgirl, to which Batman stoically responds, “Then we’ll have to make one.” He takes an unexploded gas drum, tacks on one of his small explosives, and hurls it at a burning wall. The explosion was big enough to snuff out the fire blocking their way; it sucked up all the local oxygen, giving them enough for them to jump to safety. My sleep addled brain was awake enough to notice this and think, “Hey yeah, that could happen, can’t it?” I’m not about to test that theory, though.

I’m more awake now and decided to look into whether or not how writers would get the idea to “fight fire with fire” rather than have Bats pull out a flame retardant from his handy, dandy utility belt, or burst a conveniently placed water pipe. Turns out, fighting fires with more fire is how firefighters put out wildfire. Fire.

When faced with a massive, woodland-consuming storm of flames and ash, your first instinct might not be to apply more fire to the dire situation. But think about it for a second: A fire needs oxygen and fuel, such as leaves and vegetation, to continue raging. Rob the fire of either source of nourishment and you squelch the chemical reaction that produces it.

When faced with an oil-well fire, firefighters have been known to remove the oxygen from the equation by detonating a little dynamite. The blast eats up all the local oxygen, leaving nothing to keep the fire going. When an entire forest is ablaze, however, a different tactic is in order. Firefighters remove the fuel — and what better way to quickly remove combustible underbrush than to carefully set it on fire? [Read more at How Stuff Works]

Way to science, firefighters!

This has been your Intro to Geek’s Random Thought moment.


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