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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

What we talk about when we talk about fire, Part 2

In Part 1 of my introduction to this blog, I discussed broadly some ideas relating to science communication and hinted at a divide between the way we talk about wildfire in the popular media and the way it’s discussed within the fire science community. In the former, it’s mainly smoke, structures, and suppression. Smokey Bear is still relatively popular. For the latter, hip topics (judging by the Large Wildland Fires Conference that I attended this past May) include resilience, climate change, fuel treatments and forest management, invasive species, and critiques of Smokey. In Part 2 of the introduction, I aim to illustrate this divide with an anecdote from the past year.

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View from inside a hollowed out stump.

This story involves the Rim Fire. The Rim Fire, which started in August 2013, burned over 250,000 acres in and adjacent to the western side of Yosemite National Park. It is the third largest fire on record in California history. The Rim Fire was a pretty big deal. You can read more about it here, here, and here. Last May, I had the opportunity to check out parts of the burn area firsthand. A friend, Jan, was scoping out field sites and needed someone to go along, so we donned our hard hats and backpacks and headed to Yosemite. We entered the park through the Stanislaus National Forest, and as a result our first stop was the Forest Service office, where we sorted out permits and gate keys. The office was full of information about the Rim Fire. But Smokey Bear was everywhere–you could buy Smokey jar openers and foam balls featuring Smokey’s face to stick on your car antenna. The message on the Smokey paraphernalia was as it has been since his early days: “Prevent Wildfires.” I’d like to talk more about Smokey at a later date–but for now, I’ll just suggest that Smokey’s message isn’t very nuanced and translates to many people as “Wildfire = Bad.” When the woman at the desk heard where we were headed, she said something along the lines of, “It’s a real shame you have to see [the park] like this!”

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Dancing trees!

But it wasn’t a real shame. It was, in fact, completely awesome. The forest had been transformed into a kind of natural modern art museum: fifty foot blackened snags connected only to the earth by three inches of wood, balancing like a game of Jenga, hollowed out stumps that you could climb inside and examine the jagged edges reaching towards the sky, pieces of tree bark scattered across the ground like puzzle pieces emptied from a box flipped upside down, a hundred foot pine with a hollowed out base with a cut out that looked quite like a heart, small trees whose branches bent and leaned as if they were characters frozen in motion. Jan said it looked like they were dancing.

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Snags reaching towards the sky.

Our boots squished into ashy soil on some slopes and slipped over deep piles of pine needles on others. And there, only eight months after the fire, between the downed logs and among the dancing branches, were tiny tree seedlings sprouting fresh needles, grasses and shrubs glowing green in the sunshine, and purple flowers blooming through the ash. Far from being a forest lost or destroyed, as the newspapers would have you believe, it was a forest in action, like I’d never seen one before. I wished everyone I knew could see it too, but a post-fire forest is dangerous due to falling trees, and I knew tourist hikes weren’t going to be happening there any time soon.

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Balancing like a Jenga game.

The Rim Fire was a big, severe fire, and I don’t mean to suggest that we should just accept such fires as the status quo just because they can be beautiful. Although there is some evidence that severe fires are not new, there is also evidence that the frequency of such fires has increased, whether due to hotter, drier conditions and longer fire seasons, fire suppression history, or a combination. These fires do threaten homes and livelihoods and they do impair air quality. They can lead to erosion and flooding, and habitats can be destroyed even as others are created. And though I saw regrowth happening, forests can have difficulty recovering from severe fires when the heat is too much for seeds stored in the soil or cones. When a fire is big, colonizers from outside the fire perimeter are just too far away.

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Forest regrowth at the Rim Fire.

In order to deal with fires on our landscapes, in our National Parks and near our homes, we need to accept that fire is a part of our forests (and shrublands and grasslands) whether we like it or not. If we want to protect houses, we need to talk about defensible space. If we want to reduce severity, we need to talk about how we can put more funds into research and forest management and less into suppression while still keeping communities safe. If we care about air quality, we need to discuss the best way to manage smoke from prescribed fires. If we care about firefighters’ lives, we need to talk about whether it’s worth putting them at risk to protect structures. But all of these conversations require acknowledging that fire plays a complex role in our ecosystems and our society and that wildfire is not simply a terrible thing to be prevented at all costs or a tragedy that destroys our forests.

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A heart carved by fire.

Upcoming topics to look out for: the King Fire in the news, musings on fire ecology education, and more. If you have an idea for a topic, an article that you thought was great or terrible, or want to write a post yourself, please comment below.

P.S. While I’ve got you, be sure to check out Capital Public Radio’s recent multimedia piece called “California Burning.” Very cool, and touches on a wide variety of fire related topics, from fire behavior in shrublands and forests to home insurance concerns and defensible space. Featuring UC Davis’s own Malcolm North!

What we talk about when we talk about fire: Part 1

The title of this blog is adapted from a 1981 short story by Raymond Carver and the collection it first appeared in, called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I’m not the first to co-opt this phrasing, far from it. Another short story is titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” A Google search turns up a wide variety of articles with similar titles, talking about everything from violence in Chicago to Haruki Murakami to birth control to hoodies and even Sriracha. Why is it such a popular title? Why did I choose it? It’s not terribly creative. Do we choose it because it makes us feel smart, makes our articles and websites seem literary and intellectual? Because it just sounds good? Maybe these things play a role. But I choose it, and I suspect it is popular for similar reasons, because it so well captures an idea about discussing difficult or complicated topics: when we talk about one of these things there’s often more going on under the surface of our words, more threads pulling and shaping and connecting our narratives than one can see on the surface. Thus, to talk about hoodies is not just to talk about an article of clothing–it’s about race and societal attitudes and stereotypes. To talk about love is to talk about buying furniture and violence and affairs and children and bingo. I know I haven’t yet said a word about fire yet, but bear with me. I have a point, I promise.

The thing is, we often choose this title to talk about topics that we know are complicated and multifaceted and involve deeply held opinions and beliefs. What the above topics have in common is most have little to do with science (I did find one article in Cell, focusing on the classification of adipocytes, though this was just a quirky title). This is perhaps because those focused on science are less familiar with the short story, but it reflects, in a way, attitudes towards scientific topics. Science reporting is largely about “facts” (as is much of science education). Scientists discovered this, a new study shows that. There is some discussion of implications, but rarely with much detail. In contrast, a topic like fire is often reported with regard to current events with little mention of science. The threads that tie together science and the big picture are frequently missing or incomplete.

More and more, I see excellent, in depth, feature articles on fire (like this one from last year in the NYT Magazine and this one from the other day in NY Magazine), but these are long articles, 8 or 9 pages apiece, and your average reader won’t read the whole thing. The articles that most people read are about how many houses were destroyed or how many acres of forest were “lost” or how people were evacuated off of Half Dome. When wildfire is presented as a uniformly bad thing for forests and humans, it’s hard to get people to accept strategies like prescription burning or managed wildfire, even if the fire community is largely in favor of using these tools.

There are a few topics that regularly get more nuanced coverage, where science is part of a bigger story–climate change and evolution come to mind–but even these topics are presented as an us vs. them situation. Either you’re anti-science or you accept the science. When the science conflicts with your beliefs, the scientists must be wrong. Values and priorities currently determine whether you believe the science, not how you choose to use it. It’s rarely a case of “here’s the science, the best we’ve got, now how should we use this knowledge, taking into account our values and priorities?” Fire could be a good model for discussing science and policy in the latter form. While politics and fire are certainly linked, attitudes towards fire are not yet tied to political positions simply because the general public is poorly informed on the topic in general.

How do you communicate the nuance of your work in the kinds of articles that people actually read? How do we help people understand the implications of scientific work without binding science to particular political positions? In the case of fire, how can we bring the discussion that happens in the fire community outwards such that we can talk about revising fire management policy on a bigger scale?

I’m going to try to explore these questions a bit in this blog. Some of the time I will examine articles about fire from different types of publications. Which articles are effective and why? What language do they use to talk about fire? Some of the time I will tell my own story, about my own research and interactions will colleagues, friends, and family where we talked about fire. And some of the time I will talk about topics other than fire, because lessons about science and education and communication can help us understand the how we talk about and teach about fire, just as fire can serve as a model for these topics as a whole.

Talking about fire, as with many topics we explore in science, means talking about ecology, history, evolution, conservation, tourism, health, property, and more. This is why I chose the title I did. I want to help tell a story where fire is neither good nor bad, where the science is neither good nor bad, but where science is a tool that helps us understand a larger story of nature and society. Where the story is interesting because of the way the puzzle pieces fit together, not only because of cool facts and hot flames.

That’s all for now folks. Stay tuned for Part 2: Actually Talking About Fire, in which I get the ball rolling with some stories about fire (with pictures!).