Fire at Fort McMurray: Talking About Fire in Real Time



Fort McMurray wildfire, May 2016

The 2016 fire season is well underway, and with it lots of talk about wildfire. Dominating the news right now is the Fort McMurray wildfire, which began May 1 and has now burned more than 565,000 acres (California’s Rim Fire was only 257,000 acres, and New York City is about 300,000 acres, for perspective ). About 90,000 people have been displaced. Though the cause of the ignition is still under investigation, unusually hot and dry conditions have contributed to the fire’s spread, and the fire is early in the season. Fort McMurray is a community not far from the Alberta Oil Sands (often referred to as the “Tar Sands”) and it has grown in response to available jobs in the oil industry.

It’s not surprising that many people have brought up climate change. There’s first the question of whether climate change has contributed to this particular fire, which is starting to become a familiar discussion. But the location of this particular fire really matters to this conversation. For one thing, boreal regions are more sensitive to climate change and fires at higher latitudes are likely to contribute to feedbacks that exacerbate warming. This is also an unusual case in that the victims of the fire are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. It can be tempting to see a cruel irony there, even to blame the residents of these communities for their fate.

I’ve been following the fire for the past week, and the discussion surrounding it seems to come down to three main topics.

1) Has climate change helped make the Fort McMurray fire?

2) Has fire suppression helped make the Fort McMurray fire?

3) How should we talk about the Fort McMurray fire? Is it appropriate to discuss climate change at the same moment that people are losing their homes?

The first two topics are interesting, but since the title of this blog is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Fire,” I want to focus on #3, delving into the conversation about conversation about wildfire, that has been playing out between Canadian politicians, in the comment threads of online news articles, and in the Twittersphere. In the coming weeks, I hope to return to questions 1 and 2.

How should we talk about the Fort McMurray fire?

Last week, Canada’s Green Party Leader Elizabeth May stated:

“The fact that the forest fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event – very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation. . .I think our focus is always on the right now: to think for the firefighters, for first responders, for people who are losing their homes. It’s a disaster. But it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.”

After her remarks, May faced backlash from those who felt that she was “exploiting the tragedy to advance a political agenda.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the critics, acknowledging the link to climate change but claiming that the conversation was not helpful right now:

“One thing we know is that with climate change there will be more extreme events, but, we know very well that placing a direct link between any fire or a flood and climate change goes a step beyond what is helpful and does not benefit a conversation we must have.”

Comments on articles about this exchange and tweets about the fire overall have reflected the divided opinions of May and Trudeau. Wading into internet comments has its dangers, but it can provide an angle on the conversation that you don’t get from polished articles. Here’s a sample:

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I tend to agree with those who argue that we should talk about climate change now. As the Earth grows warmer and the real consequences of climate change—sea level rise, drought, storms, fires—start to become real, we will need to learn how to talk about climate-related crises in real time. Many people acknowledge the reality of climate change, but as a threat to national security (and as a campaign issue) it takes a backseat to terrorism and gun violence. People still illustrate climate change with pictures of polar bears, not with wildfire evacuees (a google image search brought me as many polar bears in the top 25 hits as images that even hinted at fires and hurricanes–are these really equivalent in scope?). We need to be clear that the consequences of climate change will affect real people and their homes, and we can’t do that by sticking to abstract concepts like changes in mean temperature or predicted feet of sea level rise divorced from real events.

Still, there are tactful and useful ways to talk in real time, and ways that are neither. Articles that jump to climate change generalities without a mention of the victims of the current fire will appear distasteful, especially so to those readers who view climate change as nothing more than politics. This ensures that such articles will only get shared among the educated elite who already agree that climate change is a major issue. Being labeled as an insensitive jerk is not the best way to get people to take your writing seriously.

So, many writers understand that during a time of crisis, one must at least acknowledge the victims before launching into science talk. The Nature Conservancy tweeted an article that was mostly about fire suppression and climate change—but the text of the tweet? “Our sympathies are with the people and firefighters in Fort McMurray.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of their sympathies, but this is also tactical—if you’re going to talk about these topics, make sure to mention upfront that you recognize the suffering in the present. It’s a sort of disclaimer—if you put the people of Fort McMurray up front, people know that you care, and you can move along to the big picture. It’s surely a better strategy than sticking a “by the way, we care!” at the end of your article. Still, the article TNC linked isn’t really about those people at all. It barely mentions them.

There seems to me to be a divide in the reporting on this fire, that reflects a divide I’ve seen in wildfire reporting in general. Articles fall into one of two types:

1) Human-focused incident reporting. Here we learn the size of the fire, how many houses it has consumed, how many firefighters are on the ground, how much it costs, and how many people have been evacuated. We might learn the cause of the ignition. There may be a few lines about fire weather, but the fire largely stands alone, and climate change is rarely mentioned. The main characters are individual homeowners, firefighters, and elected officials. The publications range from local news outlets to the international papers I cite below, and the audience for these stories is broad.

Examples: This one by the NYT, this one by the Guardian, this one by the BBC

2) Bigger picture science section reporting. The articles usually start with a particular fire in a particular place, but the article quickly moves on. We get a briefing on how hot temperatures and dry conditions created conditions that contributed to fire spread. Quotes from researchers abound. We probably hear about fire suppression, bark beetles, or drought. We hear about how this will be the new normal. The main characters in these stories are scientists, not evacuees of burned towns. Indeed, most of the characters are scientists in the United States who do not actually study the Canadian boreal forest at all–I think I’ve seen more fire scientists from Arizona quoted than those from Alberta. They broaden the scope so far that the story becomes about fire in the Western US, not Alberta. These articles tend to be published in major news outlets or environment-related blogs (like this one!), and I suspect the audience is much narrower and more highly educated than the one for type 1 articles.

Examples: This article by the NYT, this one from Time, this one from Climate Central, this one by the Christian Science Monitor

Some articles are in between categories, like this article about Justin Trudeau’s remarksthis blog post by Christopher Lyon, or this nice essay by The New Yorker. But these still tend toward one of the categories. For the most part, it’s very easy to sort articles into the two categories, and I don’t think I saw a single article that interviewed an evacuee and also mentioned climate change.

Often, these two kinds of articles are separated both in space and time. But for the biggest fires, ones that attract international attention, we sometimes see both articles at the same time, leading to the claims of insensitivity cited above.

Why do we see such a divide? Is there another way? Should there be?

I suspect we see this divide because newspapers have sections and journalists have their specialties, where science writing is separated from incident reports. News outlets cater to their audiences as well. But I do think there could be another way and that there should be. Here are just a few ways I suggest to bridge the divide.

  1. Try to interview locals affected by the incident AND scientists for the same story.
  2. Keep the science local–find someone who actually studies fire in Alberta to comment on a fire in Alberta, rather than resorting to a fire ecologist who studies a totally different system.
  3. If your story is people-focused, actually use the words “climate change” rather than alluding to hot and dry conditions.

Any ideas from the audience?

It may be difficult to put this into practice–journalism has its conventions and readers have their biases. But it’s time for science to escape the Science Section if we want people to truly understand its relevance to their lives.




3 thoughts on “Fire at Fort McMurray: Talking About Fire in Real Time

  1. I live in Calgary Alberta. I’m retired and so I have had a lot of time to follow the live twitter feed for the Fort McMurray fire. A part of the push back against the climate change talk came from people making these comments on the Fort McMurray Live Twitter Feed. This twitter feed was for providing help and information to those who were going through possibly the most traumatic experience of their lives. Of course climate change should be discussed. However the Fort McMurray Twitter Feed was a completely inappropriate place to voice this perspective. Many of the tweets that appeared, especially early on were vile, vindictive, cold hearted, and without any civil decorum. It simply was the wrong place and the wrong time for such a discussion to take place. Many of those tweeting about climate change on this Twitter feed did nothing to further advance the discussion, and quite likely created more opposition to the discussion in the minds of those so dramatically affected by the evacuation, fearing for their lives. It created the impression that environmentalists were blaming the residents of Fort McMurray personally for the fire, and piling on these traumatised people at a time when they were most vulnerable. I myself spent a great deal of time trying to get this point across to many of the climate change tweeters and was accused of being a climate change denier, (of which I am not) in the most vile, combative, and vindictive way. There is a time and a place for this discussion but it certainly was not on the Live Twitter Feed for the Fort McMurray fire victims who were desperately trying to get information from those who were willing and able to give help. In other words this attempt by climate change environmentalists to further the cause of Climate Change Awareness was of no help at all to the victims, and quite likely made things worse.


    • Thanks for your excellent comment! I really appreciate hearing from someone who is closer to the situation than I am. I really agree–it’s too easy to judge when you are far away from the situation, and sometimes environmentalists hurt their own cause by not listening to the real people on the ground.

      Would you mind if I highlighted your comment in a follow-up post? Most of my readers are scientists far from Alberta and I think it would be great for them to hear your perspective.


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