Fire as a battle, as a natural disaster, as rebirth: words we use to describe fire.

Note: I apologize folks for the dry spell these past several months! I’ll try to do better (I have a document full of ideas for this blog), but I would really love it if anyone out there would like to contribute posts to make this a more active blog that doesn’t rely only on my posts. E-mail me at if interested.

We did not have to suspend the “let it blow” policy after the Everglades hurricane of 1992. We do not suspend the “let it grind” policy of glaciers, or the “let it erupt” policy for Kilauea or Mount St. Helens. But the human relationship with fire is unique: we can and do control, within limits, a “let it burn” policy. Furthermore, we have an ethical responsibility to do so when in society’s interest, and this is rarely the true for most other natural disturbances that have catastrophic potential. — James Agee, 1993

In my previous posts I suggested that there is a divide in the way we talk about fire: the broader public vs. the fire science community, words of destruction vs. words of growth and resilience. Today I want to look more at the words we use to describe wildfire, which I will group into one of two categories: “disaster-oriented” language and “ecology-oriented” language. The disaster-oriented language tends to describe fire as a “natural disaster” or as a “battle.” The ecology-oriented language describes it in popular media as “rebirth,” while in the ecological literature it is a “disturbance” (as an ecologist, I’m predisposed to like the last one best). Even in scientific journal articles, we struggle to understand what this thing we call fire is. Is it a disturbance like a flood? Or is it a disturbance like herbivory? Is a single fire a disturbance, or is a deviation from a regular fire regime the disturbance? Is it “natural” or “unnatural”? A disturbance is really just a perturbation in a system, which allows a lot of wiggle room. When it comes down to it, there is no phenomenon exactly like wildfire, but context, experience and bias guide communication about fire so that we describe it in familiar terms, even if they don’t quite fit. In this post, I want to look at some of the words we use, disaster-oriented and ecology-oriented, and consider how well fire fits.

In the popular media, fire crews go into “battle.”

I was watching a little video about a wildfire in California the other day, and I read a few news articles about recent fires, too, and it occurred to me that people who write about wildfire really, really love to use the word “battle” when they talk about fire suppression efforts. For example, an article about the King Fire from September notes “A total of 3,367 firefighters are battling the blaze.” We use this language of war quite often when fighting fire: it’s a war of man against nature, a story that we as a society have loved for a long time. When I posed the question on Twitter “do we use the word battle to talk about other natural phenomena?”, the answer was yes. We use it in a variety of ways as we attempt to control nature–invasive species, erosion. In some ways these things are comparable–erosion and movement of species exist as ecosystem processes independent of humans, but humans have shaped these processes in space and time, speeding things up, building our homes in the way, simultaneously deciding that nature is a problem and making those problems worse. All three force us to consider what is and isn’t “natural” and what our priorities will be in shaping our future landscapes and building future homes. On the other hand, the ‘battle’ of fire isn’t the battle of long term management in the way it is often used for invasives and erosion. It’s the fighting of fire in the moment, the glorification of man (and occasionally woman) vs. nature. Firefighters are portrayed as soldiers in a way that people pulling zebra mussels off their boats are not.

Fire is often listed as an example of a natural disaster. But as James Agee noted in the quote I highlighted at the beginning of this post, fire is distinct from hurricanes and floods and tornadoes and earthquakes. We have contained and harnessed fire in ways that we could never begin to imagine controlling these other disasters. We defend ourselves by building storm shelters and buying generators, by building homes on stilts or that can withstand seismic activity. We defend ourselves from fire, too, but we don’t always do a particularly good job of it, since firefighters are often there to put it out. There’s also the fact that many fires (in some regions, nearly all) are human caused. In some places, mainly rural areas like Sierra forests, the Rockies of Montana, or remote southwest Australia, fire works like a natural disaster some of the time: there are many lightning caused fires, wildfires in remote locations are allowed to burn, and there are well-developed fire safety education programs for those who do live in the area. For many of us, though, fire doesn’t work like that, and it is not so much of a natural disaster–when the cause is a cigarette, power lines, an illegal campfire, or arson, it’s more of an unnatural disaster. In Southern California, 95% of fires are human caused.

IMG_8960 - Version 2

“Rebirth” after the Rim Fire.

But in the context of fire ecology, fires are not really a disaster at all. Rather, fire is a process that determines the global distribution of forests and grasslands, that triggers the germination of seeds, that drives nutrient cycling, that opens space and provides habitat for plants and animals alike. It’s not so much good or bad as a powerful force to be understood. Ecologists use the relatively neutral term “disturbance” to refer to fire, as well as to floods, windstorms, insect outbreaks, volcanic eruptions, and various other natural and anthropogenic phenomena. Neutral language is not so popular in the popular press, however, and fire ecology is usually presented in the context of rebirth after fire. Here, here, and here, you can see articles written in the years following major fires with that bent.

How much do we use these words? I did a quick Google search to get a rough idea. Here’s what I found:

  • 1.02 million hits for “wildfire AND battle” (40,300 news stories; 14,500 scholarly articles
  • 741,000 for “wildfire AND disaster” (24,200 news stories; 18,300 scholarly articles)
  • 466,000 for “wildfire AND ecology” (6,410 news stories; 47,900 scholarly articles)
  • 246,000 for “wildfire AND rebirth” (3220 news articles; 1,790 scholarly articles)
  • 403,000 for “wildfire AND disturbance” (1660 news stories; 35,900 scholarly articles)

This is a pretty cursory search. Indeed, many of these articles are totally unrelated to wildfire. (I saw one where “gossip spread like wildfire.”) Still, there are some interesting patterns. The most hits and news articles are for disaster-oriented terms, while more scholarly articles use ecology-oriented terms.

My categories of disaster-oriented vs. ecology-oriented are inventions based on media I’ve read, watched, or listened to and conversations I’ve had with people in fire science and management and curious friends, family, and strangers. I’d like to acknowledge right now that this is conjecture, based on anecdote rather than data. Therefore, I’d like to tell you about a new research project that I am getting started. My new project is titled, provisionally, “What we talk about when we talk about fire: the language of wildfire-focused media.” The goal is to get some real data on the words being used in newspapers, blogs, and magazines around the world when they talk about fire. Is it mostly disaster-oriented or ecology-oriented? What words come up most often? Has this changed over time? Does it vary by region? By country? I have enlisted the help of a friendly big-data geek and natural language processing pro to help me create a big database of articles from around the world and over a span of about 30 years. Next, we’ll start to sort through all of those words to pick out patterns. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, feel free to call me out if you feel like I am just making up nonsense.


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