Why We Don’t Let Fires Burn: Paper Policy and Public Opinion (Part 1)

This week, environmental writer Andy Revkin published an article in the New York Times titled “Will California Ever Let Sierra Nevada Forests Burn?” This title showcases the main problem of fire management for the past 50 years: we’ve long known that what we’re doing isn’t working (fire suppression), we’ve long known what we need to do to mitigate that problem (get more fire on the ground), but we don’t do it, at least on the scale that would be needed for effective forest management.

Why not?


A Sierra Nevada forest burned during the Rim Fire.

There are two kinds of barriers: institutional and policy barriers (rules or customs that shape how agencies make management decisions) and public barriers (public opinion). These are not separate–policies are designed based on what agencies think people want, and public opinions are shaped by policy and policymakers. This interaction of institutional and public barriers can create a feedback loop where nothing ever changes.

Let’s look at the institutional and policy barriers first. I’ve separated my discussion of public barriers into a second post, since this one was getting too long.

The federal agencies that manage wildfires have had policies that include management alternatives to fire suppression for decades. The National Park Service and the Forest Service have had policies that allow for managed wildfire and prescribed burning on the books since 1968 and 1978, respectively. But both are relatively rare even today.

Researchers Scott Stephens and Malcolm North have been heading up a charge for real change in forest fire management, creating an ever more forceful argument that puts managed wildfire at the forefront. Last year, they wrote an article for Science with colleagues titled, concisely, “Reform forest fire management.” They highlight the environmental and monetary costs of fire suppression and argue that institutional obstacles are the major problem. They suggest that public support of reform will help, but the public is not presented as the major obstacle to change.

More recently, in a November 2016 article in Ecosphere, Stephens and colleagues kick the argument up a notch, suggesting specific policy changes that could upend those institutional barriers. Most radically, they suggest changing the “default rule.” Currently, managed wildfire needs justification, while suppression is the default rule. The paper proposes a flip: managed wildfire becomes the default, while continued suppression would require a disclosure of environmental costs.

Changing default rules is a great way to change behavior, because people tend to stick with the default option (see economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein’s thought-provoking book Nudge for more on this). Changing a default rule forces a change in the status quo, unlike sitting around waiting for people to choose differently. Choice is preserved, but default rules ‘nudge’ people and institutions toward particular choices that they might otherwise not choose. A common example is making organ donor status the default when people get a driver’s license, forcing them to opt-out rather than opt-in.

In the context of fire management, though, changing the default is a pretty big change in the status quo. If this change were to be implemented, it could be very effective. The problem is changing the default rule, which seems pretty unlikely at this point in time.

A related policy discussion that has come up is the role of the Clean Air Act as a barrier to prescribed fires. Because prescribed fires are intentional, human-caused events, smoke emissions are subject to pollution caps. Unplanned wildfires, which are often human-caused anyway and tend to create much greater amounts of smoke, are not subject to Clean Air Act regulations–so long as the agency is trying to suppress the fire (see a discussion by law professor Eric Biber here). While the Clean Air Act doesn’t disallow prescribed burning or condone wildfires, the result is a pretty big ‘nud


Wildfire smoke from the 2016 Sand Fire. Smoke from unplanned wildfires is not subject to Clean Air Act regulations so long as they are suppressed. 

ge’ to keep the status quo of suppressing fires quickly and doing prescribed burns only on rare occasions.

And then there’s the monetary disincentive. Alternative strategies cost money, and most of the available money is going to suppression. As Sara Jensen and Guy McPherson articulate in Living With Fire: Fire Ecology and Policy for the Twenty-First Century, most recent attempts at forming or amending federal fire policies have a contradiction at heart: a recognition of what should be done (more research, forest management, and fire on the ground) but resource allocations that support the status quo (most money going to fire suppression, leaving little for anything else).

In recent years, fire suppression costs have grown ever larger. These funds come from annual budget for agencies, namely the US Forest Service.  Each year, the Forest Service has an increasing portion of its budget going to suppression (now more than 50%), further reducing funds available for management alternatives and research. Other kinds of natural disasters are funded differently, and one strategy for providing more funds for projects like prescribed burns has been to change the way suppression is funded. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Bill is a proposed measure that would have allow fire suppression for catastrophic fires to be funded like other disasters, freeing up agency funds for other uses, like research and prescribed burns. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in Congress this week, when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced that the talks that included this bill were unlikely to resume until next year. The bill has had bipartisan support, and it sounds like it’s still on the table, but the Missoulian described the news as “budget fix for fighting wildfires dies in Congress.”

So institutional incentives and policy design work together with monetary allocations that reinforce the status quo. Any fix will require a powerful change that rewires the incentive structure and funding availability to favor fire on the ground over total suppression.

Why are the incentive systems set up this way? Why are the defaults still set against prescribed fire and managed wildfire use even though research has long shown support for these strategies?

This is where institutional barriers meet public barriers. Stay tuned for Part 2.


Beyond Forest Fires: Bringing Chaparral Fire Stories to Light

It’s Friday evening, late July, and we’re driving south down I-5  toward Universal Studios and the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Jim Dale’s rendition of the sixth Harry Potter book plays from the car speakers. Then, up ahead—a bright orange glow in the dark hills ahead. These are the flames of the Sand Fire, which would burn just over 40,000 acres near Santa Clarita, California in the next several days. The next day, ash was falling on the rooftops of recreated Hogsmeade shops and the sky was a smoky pink. The California wildfire season was heating up.


Smoke from  the Sand Fire from Universal Studios–Hollywood. (Photo: A. Weill)

California’s 2016 fire season had begun long before that July evening—indeed, some argue that “fire seasons” have gotten so long that such a thing doesn’t really exist anymore—but late July is still a time for big fires to really get going. The Sand Fire wasn’t the only big fire to start then. That same exact day—July 22, 2016—another fire was reported in Big Sur, California. That one was the Soberanes Fire, California’s biggest fire of the year so far, and it’s still burning. More than two months later, the Soberanes Fire is 99% contained at just over 132,000 acres (about 9/10 the size of Chicago).

This year’s big fires are mostly in Southern California: of the ten biggest fires this


The plants around the Hollywood sign? That’s chaparral. (Photo: T. Hoffarth)

year, eight are in Southern California (though the biggest is on the Central Coast). This is the opposite from last year: nine out of ten were in Northern California. Most Southern California fires are not forest fires (neither were several of last year’s biggest fires). Instead, these fires blaze through the steep, dense shrublands known as chaparral. This year, chaparral-covered Southern California should have our attention. So why are so many media outlets still focusing on the stories of Northern forest fires?

Let me be clear: big fires, including chaparral fires, always make the news—even the national and international news. In fact, I’d wager the majority of news articles about California fires are actually about chaparral fires—they are closest to where people live (chaparral surrounds most of the big cities) and some of the hardest to fight (dense vegetation, steep slopes).

But news articles about fire fall into two types—or at least, two parts. There’s the incident part–we hear about fire size, ignition source, number of firefighters, people evacuated, structures damaged. Then there’s the big picture part—why are we seeing so many big, hard to control fires today? How do these fires fit into long term trends?

News articles that focus on chaparral fires get the first part right. Here’s an example, from last year’s Rocky Fire. But reporters struggle when it comes time to step back and put these fires in the broader context of the modern problems of fire in the West. They throw in references to fire suppression (here’s one example) and note that prescribed fire can help–even when most evidence suggests that this is not the case for these regions. Likewise, bigger picture stories in the science sections of the New York Times or LA Times tend to treat all wildfires as if they are forest fires under conditions like those found in the Sierra Nevada.

Fires in forests and in chaparral or other vegetation types have a lot in common, and understanding the basics of what generates and shapes wildfire (eg. available fuels, ignition sources, weather, topography) is helpful in any environment. But just as different habitats have different plants, animals, and amounts of rainfall, so too do they have different fire behavior. This isn’t just a comparison—the kind of plants and the amount of rainfall directly determine the kind of fire you get in a given system.


A chaparral hillside regenerating after the Wragg Fire in 2015. (Photo: A. Weill)

Why is it so important to recognize this difference? When it comes to managing fire for the benefit of people, infrastructure, and natural resources, the kind of fire you get in that system matters. As noted above, some strategies that work well in one system are counterproductive or inefficient in another. Managing wildfire is expensive, in both dollar amounts and costs for human life and wellbeing, and we can’t afford to keep using a one-size-fits-all approach.

In particular, we need to bring more attention to understanding the specific dynamics of chaparral and other non-forested ecosystems in California. Many big, destructive fires aren’t in forests, as noted above, and most people in California don’t live in forested areas–they live in the big cities, surrounded by hillsides covered in dense chaparral shrubs. As of 2010, the five most populous California counties are in Southern California, where the most common vegetation type is chaparral or desert. I’ve heard the argument that wildfire is only a problem when people come into contact with it—when they build their houses in fire-prone areas. If the wildfire problem is a people problem, its center should be Southern California and other highly populated areas, not the Sierra Nevada.

I don’t mean to suggest that forests are not important, or that we should stop talking about the issues they face. Indeed, forests take up much more land area than chaparral in California. Instead, I want fire science communicators to approach their work a bit differently. First, we should make a greater effort to consider the ecosystem context of the wildfires we write about.  Second, we should elevate the importance of understanding and finding solutions for fire issues in the systems where most people actually live.

There are signs that fire science communicators are starting to do this—a recent article on fire and beetles by KQED took pains to discuss how region-specific differences could matter, and an article in the New York Times mentioned how shrublands were different from forests at the end. In September, there was a panel on Living With Fire at the Society for Environmental Journalists meeting in Sacramento that stressed the differences between fire in Northern and Southern California.

But caveats in the last few sentences of an article, as was the case with the NYT article, aren’t very effective. Most people won’t read that far—they’ll read the headline and introduction, which are designed to draw readers in. The aforementioned NYT article has a headline focused on prescribed burning yet starts with a discussion of big chapparal-driven blazes. Does it matter that the end of the article asserts that prescribed burning isn’t a solution for Southern California when the first half of the article implied otherwise?

Chaparral fires need their own stories—they can’t be a tag on or exception. And newsmakers seem to be aware that something called chaparral plays a role in many big, destructive fires—chaparral is the star of the incident-focused stories. Why is it so hard, then, to tell their scientific and management stories?

My answer: it comes down to good storytelling.

The narratives about fire suppression in the Sierra are so compelling, and in the end, so satisfying. The story of fire in the Sierra is a great story. It has lots of interesting characters (the Europeans who thought fire was bad and didn’t know any better, environmentalists who decided fire was natural and good decades later, Smokey Bear as a surprise villain, Native Americans who knew the truth all along), it has neat and understandable science (fire behavior and plant adaptations), and it has a terrific setting (Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, everyone’s favorite hiking spots). But most importantly, this story ends with solutions. People are left to feel optimistic that we can undo the damage we’ve done through prescribed burns, letting more wildfires burn before suppressing them, and carefully planned thinning (never mind the fact that we haven’t done a very good job of implementing these solutions in the decades that we’ve known about them).


We love to tell fire stories about places like Yosemite National Park. (Photo: A. Weill)

In our shrubby backyards? That story doesn’t have a lot going for it. Humans caused most of the fires, and they still do. Fires in chaparral have probably always been hot and destructive. Suppression wasn’t nearly as effective as it was in the forests, and we get more fires, not fewer, as coastal cities grow. Prickly ceanothus branches aren’t nearly as lovable as a huggable Jeffrey pine that smells like butterscotch. There’s already plenty of fire on the ground, and there’s not much evidence that thinning and burning are effective. What’s the solution? Move away, build your home out of different materials, don’t start fires. Learn to live with fire, or leave. Prescribed fire and fire use are somebody else’s job. When there’s not a lot that fire management can do, the burden of living in the wildland-urban interface falls more squarely on the homeowner’s shoulders.

That’s a pretty negative narrative, and it’s no wonder these stories don’t catch on. Yet it doesn’t need to be written that way. We can learn to tell a good story about fire in chaparral or other non-forest systems–the long history of fire and people along the coast, the plants and animals so adapted, the importance of climate and population growth and erosion and flooding. Chaparral fire has its own history and characters, from Native American fire use over thousands of years to to residents of San Diego evacuated in the 2003 Cedar Fire–the largest in recorded California history. Ceanothus shrubs may be stiff and prickly, but they have beautiful flowers that color the hillsides in the early spring. As for solutions—even if the best strategies we have now for living with fire in Southern California aren’t so appealing, it’s likely that there are tools and strategies that we don’t even know about yet that would come about with further research and discussion. But there’s no chance for this until we bring more focus to chaparral fires and stop conflating them with forest fires.


Chaparral has its own stories. (Photo: A. Weill)

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.



In the Black & Green at Stebbins Reserve

Note to local readers: Stebbins is presently still CLOSED to the public and is expected to reopen in early May. Please respect the closure and allow the ecosystem some time to recover. In the interim you can visit via a guided walk or as trail crew–see here for more information.

I have written a couple of times now about last summer’s fire at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. It’s not a fire that you would have heard about on national news. It wasn’t very big, and it didn’t cause a lot of infrastructure damage. But I’ve been very interested in this particular fire, because it’s local. I can drive to the burn site from my house in about 30 minutes. In fact, I can take a quick turn off the street where I live and can then drive all the way to Stebbins on the same road. When the fire was burning, I watched the smoke sit heavy on the horizon from my front yard, and I watched ash fall from the sky like summertime snowflakes. Stebbins is a place where I and my fellow residents of Davis go hiking on weekends; it’s where I took a visiting prospective student to give her a taste of California ecosystems; it’s where my colleagues and I built a new citizen science program over the last few years. Stebbins has become one of “my places,” along with the reservation behind my family’s house in New Jersey, my island scout camp in the Adirondacks, Lake Michigan, and others.

In environmental education and related fields, we talk about one’s “sense of place.” Your sense of place includes your knowledge of a landscape, ecological or otherwise, how you fit into it, and your experiences there. I am interested in the fire at Stebbins because it is a major change in a landscape for which myself and many people around me have a sense of place. Not only has the color and composition of this landscape changed since the fire, but so has the way we interact with and experience this place.

I have visited Stebbins now three times since the fire: August 2015, November 2015, and February 2016, each time with a different group of people. Here is what I’ve observed so far:

Visit 1: August 2015 (just 2 fire ecologists)

My first visit was about a month after the fire. I stopped by with a friend who has worked on the CPP-Stebbins citizen science project on the way to do some fieldwork for my dissertation research, just up the road. We were two fire ecologists, and we were excited to be there. The most striking thing was how the landscape had opened. I could suddenly see hillsides stretching up high to both sides, and out beyond the trail. Before, trees and dense shrubs blocked that view. Most trees still stood as they always had, but many shrubs were skeletons. We saw crisp blackened leaves still hanging on the trees and ash covering the ground. The bulletin board near the entrance had become a window, and fiberglass posts marking phenology trail plants had exploded–proving that they were, indeed, made of fibers. And amidst the brown and black and grey, even in the dry heat of California summer only a month post-fire–during a drought no less–was green. Green sprouts on a hillside of black soil, green sprouts at the base of trees, and green sprouts from the branches of a California buckeye! The buckeye wasn’t supposed to have any leaves at all in the summertime! We poked at resprouts and talked fire ecology until we reached a point where the trail was covered in debris, and we headed home.

Visit 2: November 2015 (citizen scientists)

In November, I put together a visit for the volunteers for our citizen science project, the California Phenology Project at Stebbins. These volunteers had been taking data on the timing of leafing out, flowering, and fruiting for a year before the fire, and they were eager to visit. We had a group of about 15. Our mission was to see how the reserve had changed, to take an informal inventory of the plants that they had monitored, and brainstorm how we might begin to do citizen science again post-fire. Though we’d had rain at this point, the landscape didn’t look too different than it had in August. The green sprouts were taller. Ladybugs had taken up residence in the remains of a shrub.

But this time, I got to watch a bunch of people who had developed a very strong sense of place in this landscape see how the place had changed. I had adopted Stebbins as my own over the past couple of years, but I didn’t really visit all that often. Our volunteers were out there every month, or every couple of weeks. They had a routine. They observed their plants closely. They knew them well. I had been concerned that we’d need to use GPS data to find the plants that they’d monitored, but I needn’t have worried. I watched with amazement as the volunteers identified the location of nearly every plant–chatting amongst themselves, “No, that toyon was definitely by this rock here” or “This is where one of the monkeyflowers was, I’m sure of it.” In the end, we located all of the plants except a few monkeyflowers, which would have had the least protection of any of the plants during a fire. For the volunteers, they not only saw the broad landscape change, but they could pick out changes to individual plants.

Visit 3: February 2016 (fire ecology students)

My most recent visit was less than two weeks ago, a little more than 6 months post-fire. I tagged along on the class field trip for UC Davis’s fire ecology course. It was obvious from the moment we got there that there had been big changes: there was lots of green. The shrub skeletons remained, but grass and moss had filled in between them on many hillsides. California poppies colored some slopes yellow-green. We paused every hundred feet or so to get the name of another wildflower. I saw tiny, half-inch seedlings of the Ceanothus species that I am germinating (with fake fire!) in the lab. Not all was green–some areas are still pretty black and brown. But other places are brighter green than I’ve ever seen them. One hillside was covered in moss so colorful and soft that a student and I agreed that we should like to take a nap right there, on the new green carpet that had sprouted under the burned out chamise. It was so cool that I went home and googled “fire moss regeneration,” but I didn’t find much–just papers about fires in peat.

Over the course of three visits, I’ve built on my sense of place at Stebbins, watchning how it has grown and changed so far. I’ve seen changes to the landscape view–the macro scale–and to branches of individual trees–the micro scale. And I’ve watched other people build their sense of place, too.

I’ve been in several post-fire landscapes before–including several on a much larger, more newsworthy scale. I remember seeing the effects of the Yellowstone Fires in about 1998 with my family, ten years after those huge fires shaped national perceptions of wildfire on the landscape. More recently, I had the opportunity to explore high-severity areas of the Rim Fire in Yosemite. I learned a lot in those landscapes. But there is something truly special about watching a fire change a landscape that you know well, that you can visit by driving down the street for half an hour. That’s what a sense of place is all about.


A Tale of Two Fires

Note: Stay tuned for a long overdue Wildfire Media Roundup as well as a report from my visit to the Association for Fire Ecology’s Fire Congress in San Antonio. In the meantime, here is a piece I wrote for a campus publication recently about fire and outreach. 

I’d been keeping an eye on the Cal Fire maps all summer, looking for fires in the vicinity of my field sites. It was a hot, dry summer, and I was setting up seed traps in dense, flammable chaparral stands up and down the state. But I didn’t find out about the first fire near one of my sites from the internet. It was the blanket of smoke that sat on the horizon, visible from my front yard in West Davis. This was the 8,051-acre Wragg Fire, which started in late July 2015 and burned through Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. A week later, the 69,438-acre Rocky Fire burned large sections of Lake County, including much of McLaughlin Reserve. Not long afterward, the Jerusalem Fire burned up to the edge of the Rocky Fire, forming one large burn area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two fire events recently (considering the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires together)—how their similarities and differences reflect the complexity involved in fire ecology and management at large. Both reserves are dominated by chaparral and oak woodland. Both have steeply sloped terrain and lie within California’s Northern Coast Ranges. The fires would have burned hot and spread quickly through shrublands. Both places are characterized by vegetation that is well-adapted to fire and will likely recover without much difficulty or prodding. And though both reserves are intended for research and teaching, they sit within broader landscapes and communities. It is this last part that reveals why these fires are different. Though my own field sites were unaffected by the reserve fires, I have been involved with two reserve-based outreach programs over the past few years: the California Phenology Project at Stebbins, a citizen science program, and the Kids Into Discovering Science program for 5th grade students in Lake County schools. Both programs rely heavily on one of the reserves that burned, and both would be affected to some extent by the changed landscape in those reserves.

Though Stebbins is a UC Reserve, it is mostly used as a local hiking spot. It is part of our home, broadly speaking, but not many people live in the area affected by the Wragg Fire. The Wragg Fire caused little to no damage to infrastructure or human life. When our citizen science volunteers headed out to explore the reserve post-fire, the atmosphere was largely one of excitement: look at how this place we have been observing has changed! At Stebbins, we are free to think about fire as an ecological force, to enjoy the wildflowers, to use the opportunity to educate people about fire ecology. Our volunteers are also a self-selecting bunch—mostly adults, with strong backgrounds in science.

Talking to the Lake County kids about the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires this coming winter will be a very different story. Despite the similar landscapes, these fires were different from the Wragg Fire in important ways: 49 residences were destroyed in the two fires that burned McLaughlin, and the nearby Valley Fire destroyed over a thousand structures. These fires occurred on or quite close to the landscapes where many of these kids live. For them, wildfire doesn’t mean chamise skeletons and wildflowers. It means danger, evacuation, expensive repairs, and people displaced from their homes.

The narratives we can pull from my descriptions of these two fire events are the same two stories that are often told about fire in the media. Most often, we see the danger narrative from the Lake County fires. Numbers dominate the headlines: evacuees, firefighters, structures destroyed. Then, months or years later, we might see a story with the ecology narrative, usually a story about regeneration on the burned landscape. Rarely are these narratives put together. Yet so much of our modern understanding of fire science lies at the junction of the human story and the ecology story—climate change, fire management, invasive species, erosion—these are ecological issues and human issues.

As the CPP Stebbins at Kids Into Discovering Science programs continue into their post-fire lives, we’ll need to consider how we talk about wildfire. The fires at the two reserves are different. The audiences are different. Should the narratives we provide as teachers be different, too? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, and discuss what it means to live in a fire-prone ecosystem? The UC Reserves are places for both ecological research and for teaching, and the fires of 2015 will serve as a case study for both.

Wildfire Media Roundup #2, 11/12

Over the past two weeks, there have been a wide range of interesting fire articles. The articles below, taken as a group, are impressive in scope: from California to Indonesia, from fire science in a lab to restoration in the field, from serious investigation to dark comedy. Some of the news sites are small and local; others have international readership. The writers and their interviewees lament the loss of trees and homes, marvel at the way fire moves through vegetation, and take action to shape their local landscapes. Sometimes it is easy to think fire is only one thing–a fire in the hills of a California that destroys homes. But there are so many perspectives to consider in the study of fire. Here are a just a few:

International news focus on fires in Indonesia: until very recently, mentions of fire this year in the newspapers with national and international readership were almost exclusively about wildfires in the western US, mostly in California. However, as it’s cooled and begun to rain in California, a number of newspapers have shifted focus to Indonesia, a region not widely known for forest fires. All of a sudden, the Indonesian fires have become the subject of a wide array of articles, from this FAQ from the Guardian, to a human health-focused piece from the Economist, to a wildlife-focused one in the New York Times.

But the American west still looms large in any media roundup. Now that the ashes have cooled from the big fires of late summer, people are taking stock of the effects of fire and looking forward to the future. In this article about the Butte Fire, locals lament the destruction of not only human structures but also the forest and discuss erosion control heading into a rainy winter. In some ways, it takes the opposite point of view of an article I linked last time, which marveled at forest resilience and discussed the value of large wildfires. Both articles present an opinion on how we should perceive wildfire, even though neither article looks much like an op-ed.

Next up–three articles of the focused more on the fire research side of things: a discussion of erosion and wildfire, a tour of the exciting happenings at the Riverside Fire Lab, and a study of fire dynamics in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). In these types of articles, researchers are the main characters. It’s about the fire research itself, and less about a specific fire event. The researchers clearly care about fire-prone landscapes and the people who live there, but they focus less on whether big fires are good or bad.

Finally, one of my favorite pieces of fire media yet: an article from the humor site The Onion–it takes themes from fire ecology and applies them in a ridiculous and wonderful fashion to a completely unrelated issue.

Wildfire Media Roundup: October 28

In an effort to blog more regularly and to provide a resource for those of you out there who are interested in wildfire reporting but can’t be on Twitter 24/7, I’m trying something new: a weekly or bi-weekly “Wildfire Media Roundup.” The idea is to summarize and link to a handful of media stories from around the web in one place–articles, radio pieces, video, and other resources. Here’s this week’s roundup:

  • Wildfire, climate, and controversy at the LA Times: Last week the LA Times published an article claiming that there is no established link between climate change and recent fire activity in California, accusing Governor Brown of misinforming the public. Many fire scientists took issue with the story (including people quoted in the article!), and wrote to the newspaper, discussing the evidence that does exist for the climate-fire link and describing the holes in the first article. This week, the LA times published several of those letters.
  • “As wildfires spread, homeowners insurance retreats”: This is a quick radio story about homeowners insurance in the wake of California wildfires. Fire is still covered under homeowners insurance, unlike floods and earthquakes, which have separate policies. But recent fires are making it harder for people to get homeowners insurance at all, with many people unable to renew existing policies.
  • Smokey Bear says it’s wildfire prevention month:  Apparently, it’s Wildfire Prevention month. I have a lot of opinions on this and Smokey Bear, which I’m saving for a later blog post, but for now, skim through Smokey’s Twitter live chat from this morning to get a sense for current Smokey rhetoric and priorities.
  • “Forest renews itself in the wake of ‘devastating’ Lake Fire”: A beautifully written article describing a hike through the burn area from the Lake Fire this past June, down in the San Bernardino mountains of Southern California. Some history and discussion of wildfire policy, with the view that high-intensity wildfires have value.
  • “Lessons learned–and ignored–from a fire that destroyed 3,000 homes”: A short article about the ways that home construction and fire prevention efforts have shifted in the 24 years since the Oakland Hills Fire, from new roofing and brush clearance to “fire millionaires” building bigger and fancier homes.

Happy reading, and feel free to add links to articles I missed in the comments.

It’s not just California forests: what’s your local fire story?

California is burning. It’s been burning for months–millennia, really–but if you’re a person in this country who pays moderate attention to the national news, you likely know that California has been burning an awful lot these past several weeks. In July, the Rocky Fire first hit national headlines when it burned about 70,000 acres in rural Lake County. The Rough Fire, now at about 150,000 acres, has burned through large sections of Kings Canyon National Park (though most of the acreage is on National Forest land); the Butte Fire covered about 70,000 acres further north in the Sierra. Finally, the Valley Fire of Lake, Napa, and Sonoma Counties burned over 75,000 acres. The Valley Fire, close to population centers and wine country, did by far the most damage in terms of loss of life and structures despite burning similar or lesser area than the other fires. And these are just a few of the more well-known fires.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you already know this–that California has been having the worst fire season in many years, if not the names and acreage of each fire. Looking at the New York Times archive (i.e., a paper that is based clear on the other side of the country), I count 11 articles about California wildfires in September alone. That’s 2-3 a week, and that doesn’t include anything from the A.P. or Reuters. Since the Valley Fire was front-and-center in September, many of these are disaster oriented and single-event focused–homes lost, animals rescued, area contained, and so on. But that’s not all–many articles discuss the bigger picture: how this fire season compares to previous ones, the effects of smoke and ash, links to drought, heat, and climate change, home insurance policies in fire prone areas. Most articles are in the U.S. section of the paper, but there was also a great feature article in the Science section last week.

But that’s just California. Now, I love California. I live here, and it’s pretty great. And California does have a huge population, a huge economy, spectacular mountains and forests and coasts, and lots of valuable infrastructure. But consider this: as of September 2 (I have not yet found a more up to date figure), over 8 million acres have burned in the United States this year. How much of that is in California? The NYT coverage might have you think it’s a lot, but CALFIRE reports a figure of only about 300,000 acres. The vast majority of area burned has been in Alaska–about 5 million acres, mostly earlier in the summer. Despite its low population numbers, fire in Alaska is hugely significant–the tundra and boreal regions are highly sensitive to climate change, and huge amounts of carbon are stored there. Blackened tundra absorbs more heat, leading to positive feedbacks that can exacerbate warming. Here’s a good summary, though it’s a few years old.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center provided this map of Alaska wildfires in June.

I talk to a lot of people about wildfire these days–I tell them what I study, and I get a lot of questions. These conversations often reflect the NYT news coverage. One common first question is “So, like forest fires?” And I say, well, sort of, but I’m mostly working on shrublands. Another line: “Like how fire is actually natural and good for the plants?” Again: well, sort of. I do study plants that regenerate well after fire and often rely on fire for germination. But in most of the places I study, over 90% of fires are human caused. Most ignitions are not natural in Southern California. Most recently, I’ve talked to people about the huge area burned this year. But I’ve met very few people who had any idea that Alaska was on fire at all. Many were surprised that Alaska could even burn.

It’s great when media coverage of wildfires discusses the science, or the bigger picture beyond destruction and incident management. We need to be talking about why fires are the size and intensity they are, and we need to discuss the best ways to manage fire. But much of the coverage presents fire as a thing that is more or less the same everywhere. It’s mostly California, and when the subject is management or science, it’s often forests with a fire deficit, where suppression has been highly effective over the past century. We hear about California forests and the consequences of highly effective fire suppression over and over–and this isn’t really a bad thing. There’s plenty of evidence that suppression has changed forest densities and fire intensities in Sierra forests and elsewhere. It’s an interesting, dramatic story, with lots of players, and–some actual solutions. It’s not a particularly new story for fire scientists, but some of the public is hearing it for the first or second time. This story is an important one, because it forces us to reconsider the way we manage fires, in California mixed-conifer forests and elsewhere. But it’s only one fire story, and we can’t rely on this story when we think about fire in the United States.

The story with Southern California fires, and most shrubland fires, is different. Most fires are human caused. Suppression has not excluded fire effectively. There are more fires burning now than historically, not fewer. Santa Ana winds play a big role.

These two places are not the same: chaparral fire at Mt. Diablo State Park

These two places are not the same: chaparral fire at Mt. Diablo State Park

These two places are not the same: forest fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

These two places are not the same: forest fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

The story with Pacific Northwest wet forests is different, as is the story of the infamous Yellowstone Fires of 1988. The fire interval in these forests is about ten times longer than that of the Mediterranean Sierra forests.

The story with Alaska, as noted above, is different, too. So are the fire stories in the pines of the southeast, the grasslands of the midwest, the northeastern deciduous forests, the scrub in the southwest. The way to manage fire on these landscapes is to first understand that fire isn’t just about forests, and it’s not just about California. Fire is like rain–it occurs nearly everywhere, in greater or lesser amounts. Sometimes there is a thunderstorm, other times there are hurricanes. So some places build houses on stilts, while others build reservoirs and desalination plants. Fire is part of landscapes all across the country, and there are as many fire stories as there are ecosystems. Fire stories involve plants and weather patterns but also indigenous burning, colonization, environmentalism, and houses.

Can the general public handle this complexity? Should we expect them to know all of these stories?

I don’t think people should learn how fire works everywhere, but I do think they ought to understand that it is different everywhere. People can start by understanding the complexity of fire by studying their home system. Those of us who work in science outreach and education often talk about “sense of place”–how understanding the your local environment makes you more interested in conserving those spaces. A fire story (or “sense-of-fireplace,” if that’s not too terrible a pun for you) is one aspect of “sense of place.”

I work on fire in CA now, but I started in upstate NY (yes, there are fires there!). When I returned to Chicago, where I attended college, I learned that prescribed burns were going on all over the Chicagoland area, that fire had been part of the prairie that once dominated the area, and later, that the Chicago Botanic Garden conducted burns on their property. I hail from New Jersey, home to the Pine Barrens, but I didn’t think about fire in this system until I read an early paper in my research area focused on that region.

A recent fire in the Shawangunks of New York state, not far from my first fire ecology gig in college. From Woodstock Fire Department.

Give something a try for me: research your own fire story–what is the fire history of the places you’ve lived, played, and worked? Your home state? Your cousins’ home state? The place where you did fieldwork? That place you went camping one time? If you live in a place where fires are common, and commonly discussed, try learning about a different place. Start by googling the name of your region or local vegetation type (e.g. “fire in the southeast” or “grassland fire.” You don’t need the full story of every place, but here are some questions to get you started:

  1. How often do fires burn in your place? How often did they burn in pre-colonial times? Before people lived there at all?
  2. What kinds of fires are there? Big or small? Killing all of the trees or just undergrowth? Have they changed over time? Are they caused by lightning or people (intentional or unintentional)?
  3. How do the fires in your system affect plants, animals, and people? Are there plants that have fire-adaptive traits? Are there a lot of homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI)? Are there local fire safe councils?

If you like, share your “fire story”–whether you already knew it or just learned it, in the comments.

Tweet After Reading?: Myth, Mess, and Social Media

Like many other young scientists, I come to admire Twitter for its ability to facilitate scientific discussion over the internet. Unlike Facebook, where you generally have to know someone personally to see their posts, on Twitter students and faculty and institutions can interact relatively smoothly. Since I started using Twitter, I’ve found it much easier to keep tabs on the goings-on in my field: I see links to new papers as soon as they are published, I get the CalFire updates on big wildfires near me, I learn about fire management on public lands, and more. While I tend to only write fresh tweets about articles I have actually read or my own experiences, I retweet liberally. But I’m trying to resist even retweeting an article that I haven’t at least skimmed, especially if the link is a second-hand story. Even if it sounds completely reasonable.

Unlike academic publishing, social media is a fast-paced environment. A paper that takes years to put together and includes a lengthy introduction and discussion that places the work in the context of a broader debate is reduced to a sentence on a local news site or to 140 characters. Twitter can be a strange place where academic debate crosses paths with the wider public. Scientists, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations alike share direct links to scientific papers, science news articles, and opinion pieces.

We retweet things that “sound right” or align with our expectations easily. Posts that seem surprising or wrong are less likely to get by without investigation. On occasion, I’ve followed some tweets about newly published papers back to their source, and I’ve found that a news article in question doesn’t even support the tweet that linked it, or, digging deeper, that the scientific papers don’t support the claims of a news article that cites them.

Here is one from the spring, from the CA Chaparral Institute:


The linked article, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, is titled “Studies question wisdom of thinning forests to stop fires.” What does the article actually say? Does it support the claim that the “science keeps rolling in”? It cites exactly one paper. Does that one paper say that thinning forests is “not working”?  Not really. It argues that fire intensities in Western forests were more variable than previously believed. Does the New Mexican article say that thinning forests is “not working”? Nope. It only talks about the “studies” of its headline for a few paragraphs, while the vast majority of the article discusses the history of fire management in the US and new projects for fire and water management in the Southwest, citing many fire scientists and managers who support thin-and-burn approaches.

Other articles are simply misleading. This one, that I clicked on via Twitter last year, discusses three scientific papers that conclude that the Western US is burning less than it did historically. The article frames these conclusions as contradictory to messaging from the White House Science Advisor, John Holdren, who had said a few days earlier that area burned, fire intensity, and fire season length had increased in recent decades due to climate change. Yet most people with even a cursory understanding of fire history in the U.S. should not find this surprising or contradictory–the primary reason that the West burns less than it did historically is fire suppression, a tool that is on the whole still widely used and extremely effective at limiting wildfire, even as climate change makes fighting fires more difficult. The fact that wildfires are getting bigger and more intense over the past few decades–despite continued suppression–is alarming even if we haven’t exceeded the range of historical variation. Though all of these puzzle pieces are present in the article–a mention that the papers compare fire today to fire more than a century ago while Holdren is talking about recent trends, a final sentence mentioning suppression–the overall message and clickbait headline suggest that the White House is lying to the public.

I found these two examples because I didn’t agree with the premise, and it seemed fishy. But there are likely countless examples of articles with missing pieces that I let by or even retweeted without investigation because the summary “seemed right” to me.

Any new scientific paper, especially one that is published in a high-level journal or that is likely to pique public interest, is launched now into a cycle of endless sharing and retweeting. This can be a great thing–most of us would be thrilled for our work to make it to the New York Times, NPR or even a news aggregator like Buzzfeed or IFLS. But there’s a risk, too. For each link in the chain, there’s another opportunity to misinterpret, spin, and exaggerate; it’s easy to spread misinformation and leave out key details in the name of a catchy headline and a memorable message. What started as a single piece in a larger scientific debate may turn into a revolutionary study that disproves “myths” when it hits the media.

As Christie Aschwanden wrote elegantly on the Five-Thirty-Eight blog this week, science is messy. She writes:

The important lesson here is that a single analysis is not sufficient to find a definitive answer. Every result is a temporary truth, one that’s subject to change when someone else comes along to build, test and analyze anew.

But the tweets and articles linked above present single papers as game changers. Apparent inconsistencies are interpreted to mean that science or policymakers are lying, or that long-held beliefs are nothing more than myths.

As science graduate students, we learn early to perfect the “elevator pitch”; science writers must learn to get the main point across and produce a catchy (tweetable) headline. But is it better to make your message so simple that it’s understandable, clickable, and easily digestible yet suggest that your single paper has provided the answer to a long-debated scientific question? Or is it better to maintain nuance, emphasize uncertainty, present science as the dynamic ongoing conversation that it is, yet have nobody read it? This is a fundamental challenge of science writing in a world that doesn’t much like grappling with uncertainty.

But we can, at the very least, make sure that the articles we share tell the story that we think they are telling. We can try to be skeptics and read closely even those articles that support our own views. And we can try to tweet after reading, not before.

What’s “so sad” about a local wildfire? Responses to the Wragg Fire

Here in Davis, skies were wild on Wednesday evening, with the setting sun glowing bright red behind a blanket of smoke. The internet provided an explanation: a fast moving wildfire just south of Lake Berryessa, now dubbed the Wragg Fire. The fire spread rapidly in the first 24 hours, over steep, chaparral covered slopes, and through Cold Canyon, a popular hiking area–rough terrain for fire fighting. Nearby residents and hikers were evacuated and highway 128 was closed off.

Meanwhile, #WraggFire was trending on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Links to CalFire updates, Capital Public Radio articles, and a cool map using MODIS hotspots. My friends and acquaintances shared images of the smoky skies and pieces of ash falling into their gardens. I was able to watch a stunning time lapse video of the fire. The Wragg Fire is one that we were able to see and feel, to actually experience, even if from a distance. It’s also noteworthy because its location is near to Lake Berryessa, a popular recreation site, and the fire itself burned through Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a UC Davis Reserve that is open to the public and has one of the closest, most popular hiking trails around. Stebbins also happens to be the site of a citizen science project that I helped found and run. In short, the area is near and dear to many of us in the Davis community.

Photo by Drew Tuma, ABC7, with markup identifying trails by Jens Stevens.

Now, I have an unusually high concentration of ecologists (and fire ecologists) in my friend group, so the tone of most of these posts was pretty matter-of-fact: there is a big, interesting event happening close by that will shape part of our local environment. But I also saw a handful of reactions like this:

“So sad.”

“So sad, what a loss.”

“This fire f**in sucks.”

[sad face]

As of 11:45 am Friday, the fire was at 6,900 acres and 20% contained. Winds had died down, making the fire easier to contain. Highway 128 was reopened to traffic. Many evacuees were allowed to return home. One tent-trailer and one outbuilding were destroyed, and one other structure was damaged.

So what is so sad about the Wragg Fire? What was the great loss? Most of these folks are not talking about the tent trailer.

One of the most interesting things about this fire, I’ve observed, is the fact that everybody is talking about it. Why is this surprising? The fire is, after all, close by. We could see the smoke.

Here’s the strange thing: there was another fire in almost the exact same area just over a year ago. In fact, the Wragg Fire has likely reburned parts of the 2014 Monticello Fire. The Monticello Fire was only a few hundred acres smaller than the Wragg Fire. I followed the CalFire updates for that fire like I did this one–but that fire got far less attention. Nobody said that one was sad–most people didn’t even know it happened. Why is this one getting so much attention?

For those who like to walk and play and live outdoors, local trails and parks are meaningful. These places can serve as constants for people with busy, messy lives. We return to places like Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve to hike the same trail, along the same creek, to see the same view of the same lake. When one of these places burns, there’s a sense that something is lost–that the forest, the canyon, the chaparral-covered hillside are destroyed when they burn.

Yet much of what’s amazing about natural places is how we can observe change by visiting the same place again and again–the dry creek and low lake levels in the midst of a major drought or the muddy trails after a downpour. Our citizen science volunteers monitor the phenology of several plants at Stebbins: when do we see the first new leaves on the buckeye trees? when do the toyon berries appear?

Fire, too, is a change that we can observe in the places we visit again and again. First abrupt, then gradual, as the ecosystem regenerates itself. What’s the difference between seasonal changes and events that occur on a decadal scale? How about disturbances that happen quickly, like fire, versus those that are slower, like drought? How should we think about semi-natural processes like fire, which have been shaped by humans for millennia?

These aren’t simple questions, in my opinion, but we are eager to draw lines and assign value judgments to the changes we observe: leaves falling, berries growing = good. Fire, drought, insect outbreaks = bad. Usually, anthropogenic changes are categorized as bad. Though the ignition source of the Wragg Fire is formally under investigation, it was almost certainly human-caused, and for many people, that makes it bad. Still, I have trouble thinking of the Wragg Fire as “sad.” Instead, I think it’s fascinating. It makes me think. It’s an opportunity to learn both about plants and about the human relationship wildfire.

When Stebbins opens to hikers in the wake of the Wragg Fire,  I’ll be excited to see the newly changed landscape, from the eerily beautiful skeletons of chaparral shrubs to the new green sprouts come next winter and spring. I’m excited about having a burn site with lots of research potential only 30 minutes from home and on a UC reserve, a place intended for research. I’m excited about taking our citizen science volunteers out to assess our phenology trail and adapt our monitoring project to the post-fire landscape.