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.

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 amweill@ucdavis.edu 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.

News highlight: A Nature paper takes off

As I was finishing up another blog post, to be published shortly after this one, I started running some searches on Google to see how often different word combinations came up (wildfire AND disaster, wildfire AND ecology, etc.), using both the general search engine and the news filter. Much to my surprise, I found that I’d  missed a significant event in fire science from the last week: a review in the high-profile journal Nature, titled “Learning to coexist with wildfire,” with Max Moritz out of UC Berkeley as the first author. It’s a good review of the current state of knowledge in wildfire science, with examples focused on the Mediterranean Basin, the Western US, and Australia. Here are a couple of quotes from the paper:

The ‘command and control’ approach typically used in fire management neglects the fundamental role that fire regimes have in sustaining biodiversity and key ecosystem services. Unless people view and plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious consequences for both social and ecological systems.

Viewing fire as a natural and inevitable hazard should be central to most solutions, so we can anticipate its important positive and negative effects on both human and natural systems. Given that combustion is one of the most basic and ongoing natural processes on Earth, we must continue to learn from our experiences to achieve a sustainable coexistence with wildfire.

But the interesting thing is that I did not find out about the paper in an academic way–not through my adviser or someone in my lab group, or from perusing Nature itself, which normally might be the case when a paper like this comes out. It’s a review paper, so most of the material is not terribly novel to those of us who study fire. It’s exciting, however, because Nature is not a journal that has tons of papers about fire all the time–it’s an interdisciplinary natural sciences journal, so any given issue covers a wide range of topics. Most of the papers on fire in my library are from journals like Forest Ecology and Management, or the International Journal of Wildland Fire, or New Phytologist, or Ecology. Only a handful are from Nature or Science. A paper in Nature means that this issue is important and interesting enough that non-ecologists and non-fire scientists should take notice.

And though the primary audience for Nature is scientists, it’s the kind of big journal that science reporters look at to find the big stories on recent publications. And this is what happened with the new fire paper–I found out about it when I saw a slew of news articles, including some in major publications such as The New Yorker, US News, NBC News, and Scientific American as well as smaller news outlets from the UC Santa Barbara Current to the Maine News.

While there are many good articles about wildfire that discuss current science and policy, most focus on particular wildfires, or are too long to hold the attention of many readers, or spend only a short time discussing fire science. Those that discuss fire management and policy tend to only hint at the idea that a suppression-dominated policy is unsustainable. This paper takes a stronger stance: we need to rethink how we deal with wildfire, even if that means more regulation about where and how people build their homes. Something must change.

The New Yorker reports:

“We don’t just have a forest-fire problem,” Moritz told me. “We have a shrubland-fire problem, a grassland-fire problem, and a woodland-fire problem. And the more we rely on fuels reduction to protect us, the more energy we’re taking away from measures that could really make a difference.”

The UCSB Current has this quote:

“A different view of wildfire is urgently needed,” Moritz concluded. “We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. … There is no alternative. The path we are on will lead to a deepening of our fire-related problems worldwide and will only become worse as the climate changes.”

That message works well for the popular media–it’s provocative, it’s assertive, it’s succinct, and it’s based in science. “Rethink wildfire” is a better soundbite than “wildfire is complicated.” It’s only been a week, and it’s only one paper, and their ideas about shifting focus from fuels reduction to managing development may be controversial. Yet there’s reason to believe that this paper could serve as a step forward in reassessing our national wildfire policy.