Twenty-seven-year-old Michael David Clark had no intention of going viral. The Hawaii-based firefighter’s social media footprint was small and straightforward: An Instagram account featuring scenic landscapes, motorcycles, friends, and, of course, fires. That changed one week ago when he recorded a TikTok “duet”—a feature that allows users to reply to other TikToks via split-screen—from his truck. In it, he responded to a conspiracy-laden video that suggested that tech companies were hiding footage of forests intentionally set ablaze by fire drones.
“It’s a prescribed burn,” Clark says, exasperation evident. “We use drip torches and drones. Nothing crazy. Stay safe out there.”
After receiving positive feedback, he decided to film another TikTok. This time, his duet was debunking the outrageous conspiracy theories peddled by Cierra Misst, a controversial TikTokers who has 2.6 million followers. Cierra’s content ranges from “storytime” clickbait, sponsored content, claims that the Titanic didn’t hit an iceberg, and anecdotes about her time “interning” for The Chainsmokers.
“Now, there are a lot of fires going on right now in our country, but was it planned?” Cierra rhetorically asks her followers in an incredulous tone.
“No,” Clark replies.
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Clark continued to strip down the Snopes-flavored claims Cierra and others have spread across social media in recent weeks as fires along the West Coast have left at least 35 people dead, dozens missing, and forced thousands to flee their homes. Cierra not only falsely claimed that the causes of the fires are unknown, but also suggested that there are mysterious biohazard signs plastered 40 miles away from Grand Canyon National Park at the site of a fire; the so-called biohazard sign pictured was actually from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. But, somehow, those weren’t even the most embarrassing claims.
“Is it not weird to you that the fires know when to stop at the border?” Cierra asks. “I mean, there are zero across the border.”
“Because it’s a US database map,” Clark responds. “They’re not going to be reporting Canada fires.”
Clark’s video went viral overnight, and now has over 1.3 million views and 282,000 likes. He’s spoken to cable news outlets like CNN and his DMs are abuzz. But Clark didn’t do it for clout. He’s been a firefighter for three years now, helping others comes naturally. Still, it’s unlikely he even anticipated he’d be teaching thousands how to properly analyze a map.
Jezebel spoke with Clark on the phone about firefighting, thirsty comments, and why firefighters are so hot. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: I first saw it on Twitter, and I shared it with my coworkers and friends and we were cracking up. Your delivery was so matter-of-fact and to the point. Fires stopping at the border? It seems like you were fed up.
MICHAEL DAVID CLARK: Yeah, you know, it’s something I’ve always seen get tossed around. And maybe it’ll get a few hundred views or a few thousand views. But when I came across this video, the person that posted it had millions of followers, and the views were up there, and there were over 32,000 likes. It just seemed very irresponsible. Obviously, some of those things were completely, just, bizarre, like the biohazard sign at the Grand Canyon. But, you know, with that many followers you know there are going to be some people who are literally going to see that and get scared. Especially in 2020 with the pandemic, people are already scared. It’s just not something we need to be spreading.
Right, and especially now that it’s so easy for misinformation to spread. I’ve never seen conspiracy theories like this before, have you?
You know, I think about a year ago I saw something about lasers starting these fires.
Yeah, I don’t know much about it, it seemed to catch some traction. I don’t know, like Dr. Evil is up there with his freakin’ cat or something starting some kind of fire... I didn’t even want to address that one because it seemed so far out there, but since we’re talking about it, I might as well. In my personal opinion, there’s nothing going on like that. Wildland firefighters and storm patrols are out there in the middle of nowhere, and if they see a freakin’ beam of light come down from the sky... someone’s gonna talk about it.
So, I saw a lot of comments on Twitter that were just thirsty, like, “Do you have a girlfriend, and can she fight?”
People said you look like a mixture of Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling, which is quite the compliment—
What’s been the funniest response you’ve gotten so far in that vein?
It’s all been very positive, you know, a lot of love. I think the coolest thing is all the fellas trying to slide in my DMs. Like I said before, I don’t necessarily swing that way, but I appreciate all the fans. It’s pretty fun, but just... an enormous amount of dudes, I think it’s pretty funny.
What are some of the weirdest comments from people who actually think what Cierra is saying has legitimacy? People accusing you of being a pawn in a scheme. I haven’t seen a lot of pushback, but I’ve seen some.
The biggest pushback I’ve received is from people thinking I was saying there are no arsonists out there. They’re sending me articles saying, “Look, three people were arrested for arson.” There absolutely is arson out there. I wasn’t saying that arson was not a thing. It’s one of the most common causes of wildfires. But, the general theme that this individual was trying to suggest was that they’re all started on purpose, there’s this big conspiracy going on of people starting fires.
I want to tell everyone to look up InciWeb. It’s where I go to get my information along with some others. This is public information, you don’t have to be a firefighter to look this up. You can click on any fire with a detailed report on how the fire started. You’ll see a lot of them are natural, or a lot of them are just... someone had an abandoned campfire that wasn’t completely cold. You know, a whole bunch of other things than an arsonist ring.
Right, like “Big Fire” or something. I saw that you did a response video to a response video that Cierra did in which she suggested that drones are starting fires. You then spent your response video explaining what a controlled fire was.
Yeah, it’s just so simple as it is: We use drones, we use helicopters, we use drip torches.
I can see how people see this footage and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a huge freakin’ helicopter dropping fire down on us!” But it’s a firefighting tactic that we use to help control where we need the fire. It helps eat up all the leaves, the pine needles, and quick fuels. So when a big fire does come through, it doesn’t have enough heat to get up into those trees and start torching.
Do you think this is just someone trying to get attention?
I think [Cierra] saw that my video went viral and she’s just trying to hop on the viral train to get more views and likes and monetization.
Okay, we need to know: Does every firehouse have a dog?
We’re getting one. One of my coworkers got a pit bull and he’s trying to potty train at home. And, you know, we’re at the station for [so long]. I actually just got done with a week straight of working, not going home or anything. Now I’m on my days off. The video went viral while I was working. So it was pretty tiresome to try and work and deal with this. But hopefully, we’re getting a pit bull coming in soon. We’ll play with him, it’ll be pretty cool.
That reminds me, what’s your coworkers’ response about going viral?
Oh, they always give me slack. You know, joking with me saying, “Oh, Ryan Reynolds is coming in, you guys better clean this place up!” Always busting me that way, but it’s fun.
Every firefighter has to know how to cook something. What’s your go-to?
I usually do keto, so I try to do some big fat steaks and some asparagus. I’m pretty basic, I don’t need to make all these fancy dishes. We got a grill and we’re always cooking chicken, steak, and veggies.
If you had to guess, why are people so attracted to firefighters? What is the allure?
I think it’s the hose. People like to have their imaginations go wild with the hose.
You have a platform now. How do you want to use it?
You know, I could lose all my followers tomorrow, and as long as I can get a positive message out there, I’ll think that a lot of good came out of this. The biggest thing I want to try and use all of this positive limelight for is to bring more awareness to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and the Eric Marsh Foundation. They’re both great nonprofit organizations. And before all this hype even happened, the Fatherless Figure website is something I was working on just personally to just try and create a platform where all fatherless individuals can go to either seek guidance, find a mentor or even something as simple as, how do I change my car oil?
I just appreciate everyone who has been sending all the love. It seems to be pretty well received across the board. And I think that that’s kind of unique, especially given how divided we are.