About Allie Weill

I am a graduate student in the UC Davis GGE. Prior to making my way to California, I grew up in New Jersey, with many a summer spent stomping around the woods and boating on the lakes in upstate New York. I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2011 with a BA with honors in Biological Sciences and a BS in Geophysical Sciences. During and after college, I worked in research and science education with a variety of institutions, including The University of Chicago, The Field Museum of Natural History, The Nature Conservancy, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

At UC Davis, I am a member of the Latimer Lab, where I study the relationships between fire, plants, and climate over the short and long term. I am focusing on fire-adapted plants in Mediterranean shrublands in southern California (chaparral and coastal sage scrub) and South Africa (fynbos and renosterveld). I am interested in the ways that fire regimes differ across landscapes and the ways that fire regimes have changed over time and will continue to change as the climate warms and how plant populations adapt to those shifts. I am also interested in fire behavior on islands and in isolated reserves.

I maintain a strong interest in science communication, education, and outreach, with particular enthusiasm for science writing and outdoor education. In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, sailing, canoeing, crossword puzzles, and playing music outdoors.

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Can we use Christmas trees for fire management?

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A Sierra Nevada forest in wintertime.

Over the past week, I’ve been talking trees with my friends and colleagues. But not any trees: Christmas trees. The question on the table: what is the environmental impact of a Christmas tree, real or artificial?

The whole thing began when a friend, a big plant lover, urged others via Facebook not to buy a real tree in order to respect the environment. Many comments followed. A mutual friend, knowing that I’d done some reading on this topic before, asked me to share some of the sources I’d found on the topic.

A lot of environmentalists assume that an artificial tree is the right choice: it’s reusable, and it doesn’t require cutting down a living tree every year only to stick it in your house for a couple of weeks until it dies. But the evidence says that this isn’t necessarily true–indeed, multiple sources, including a thorough “Life Cycle Assessment” by an environmental consulting firm, say that natural trees are actually the better choice: most Christmas trees are grown on farms, where young trees are planted annually to replace the ones that are cut down, while artificial trees are made of environmentally harmful PVC and are usually transported from China.

Others argue that the artificial vs. natural debate doesn’t matter much at all–no matter which tree you pick, the carbon footprint is far less than an average person’s footprint for a single day. And if you do want to minimize impact, details like where your tree comes from, tree farm practices, how many years you reuse your artificial tree, etc. are probably the more important choices. There are creative, earth-friendly options on both sides: a live tree that can be planted in your yard, for example, or a fake tree made from unconventional recycled materials. (The “greenest” tree I ever had growing up was definitely when we cut off the top ten feet of a Norway spruce that had toppled over in our backyard during a storm.)

And so I compiled all of this into an e-mail, finishing it off with something like “I support natural trees, assuming you’re not randomly going into the forest and randomly chopping down a tree, which few people do anyway.”

And then it occurred to me that I was perhaps missing the forest for the trees. I live in California. I care about wildfires and fire management. And one of the main strategies for managing forests for wildfire in California? Thinning small trees to reduce fuel load.

Thinning forests is controversial (really a topic for another post)–and it’s not as cost-effective or ecologically beneficial as getting real fire on the ground. But there’s no smoke, it’s precise, and has support from many interests. In any case, it’s one of the strategies we have, and one that we’ll need to continue to use as part of our forest management toolbox.

So here’s the holiday question of the day: in California, is the environmentally-friendly, fire-friendly choice to cut your Christmas tree from a forest rather than a farm?

The small trees that serve as ladder fuels (fuels that carry a fire from the forest floor to the treetops) would be pretty good Christmas trees. Many such trees are small enough to fit in your house, and they are shade-tolerant species that have the Christmas tree look, like red and white fir.

I’m not the first one to have the idea of using Christmas trees for fire management, but it’s not an idea that shows up often in real vs. artificial debates, which tend to focus on the tree’s carbon footprint. Here is one really good article on this idea, from UC Cooperative Extension Forestry, which provides lots of useful information on cutting your own tree in California.

But is cutting a Christmas tree for forest management really a good or practical idea?Individuals cutting single trees on a small scale probably won’t have much effect on fire behavior. On a larger scale, there may be more cost-effective uses for the products of thinning than Christmas trees. And as is the case with artificial and farmed trees, there are so many factors involved in choosing a tree that it would be hard to argue that cutting a tree is a better choice than anything else, even in California.

So what’s the takeaway? Here are a few:

  • Always consider the forest AND the trees–individual trees can only thrive in a healthy ecosystem.
  • Think about your local environmental context when you choose a tree, or when purchasing other environmental resources. Choosing a tree in California may be different than doing so in New York.
  • When deciding what is “environmentally-friendly”, think beyond carbon footprint (carbon is definitely important, but there are other considerations, like wildlife habitat and wildfire).

Any thoughts from the audience? If you live near forests where thinning takes place, have you considered getting your Christmas tree this way?

Happy holidays from Talk About Fire!

P.S. Speaking of fire, if you have a live tree, make sure to keep it watered, turn the lights off when you’re not around, and avoid real candles and other fire hazards. We don’t want to move the fire from the forest to your home! Other tips here.

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You can always create a lovely mixed-candyfir forest to celebrate!

Letting Fires Burn: Paper Policy and Public Opinion (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed institutional barriers and incentive structures that make it difficult to get fire on the ground in the form of managed wildfire or prescribed burning. I argued that these disincentives can work in a feedback loop with public opinions to keep the suppression-dominated status quo in place. Now it’s time to discuss public opinions: in a 2015 paper in Nature, North and colleagues argued that public support for fire management reform could help propel change. The argument is that public opinion will drive policy, and the implication is that good science and education can help shape public opinion.

Where do public opinions about fire come from, anyway? There’s a sense in much writing about fire that the natural state of things is for people to fear fire, and the idea of fire can be a positive natural process or a tool for ecosystem management is some kind of novelty.

But for the United States, this isn’t really true. Indigenous groups here and abroad have had long histories of using fire as a tool to shape the landscape, and many settlers picked up these techniques and supported what was then called ‘light burning’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fire wasn’t eliminated from many North American forests based on ‘public opinion’–it was eliminated by policies that made indigenous burning and ‘light burning’ illegal, and by the implementation of widespread fire suppression by the early Forest Service, a then-new organization looking for purpose (see Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn or the PBS documentary of the same name for a good history). The ‘public opinion’ that ‘fire is bad’ came top-down.

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Gifford Pinchot and the early Forest Service found their purpose in fire suppression. (Photo credit: USDA)

So the ‘fire is bad’ narrative wasn’t originally the default position. But when the fire community talks about changing public opinion today, it’s usually based on an assumption that people today think fire is bad and scary, and policy will change if only people learn that fire can be natural and good. The strategy is to continue to persuade people that prescribed burning and managed fire are good and total fire suppression is a mistake.

In order to make their case, fire researchers and educators like to point to scientific evidence that demonstrates the benefits of fire. For example, a recent article reported new results in wildfire research: a study in Yosemite found that forests that had had neither fire suppression nor prescribed fire over the past 40 years–just managed wildfire–were more resilient to fire. This was interesting, but not really a surprise. Researchers in the fire science community have been researching the effects of different fire regimes and fuel treatments for decades. What did surprise me was a quote from one of our author heroes of fire management reform, Scott Stephens, who said, “I think [the paper] has the potential to change the conversation about wildfire management.”

Does a single paper really have the potential to change the conversation? We’ve been making the same arguments since the 60s, yet so little has changed in terms of fire policy.

Talking about the benefits of fire might be a good strategy to get public support for forest fire reform. But does public support for reform in general matter, or does this just result in the same old paper policies of the kind that have been on the books for decades?

I’m starting to think that this isn’t the right strategy to make change happen, for two reasons. First of all, I’m no longer convinced that the general public desperately needs a lesson on the benefits of wildfire. Second, I’m skeptical that more evidence or education focused on the benefits of fire will lead to any kind of radical policy change.

In my (ongoing) research, I have asked hikers to describe their perceptions of wildfire in the United States. By far, the most frequent words that they use are “natural” and “necessary.” Many people think that public attitudes are a primary barrier to implementing prescribed fire; recent research suggests that this isn’t really true.

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Prescribed fire in Oregon. (Photo credit: BLM)

This lines up with what I have observed in casual conversations and on social media. Nearly every article on wildfire I read mentions the downsides of fire suppression and touts the benefits of planned or managed fire, whether or not it applies to the particular wildfires in question. There are even children’s picture books about fire ecology. 

I’m sure that there are still many people who associate wildland fire with destruction only. Most people don’t read the New York Times, attend ranger talks at National Parks, or have the advantage of attending a fire ecology field trip. My hikers might be a skewed sample–many live in a university town, and all have made the choice to spend a day out on the trail. But for many audiences–including policymakers and many residents of fire-prone landscapes–the message has stuck.

Here are some things that a large portion of the public will agree with:

  1. The United States has a wildfire problem that needs addressing.
  2. Wildfire can be a natural part of ecosystems, and fire suppression has contributed to (1), at least in some areas.
  3. Prescribed burning is a good tool for hazard reduction and ecosystem management.

Here are some things that most of the public (at least in the United States) will not agree with or acknowledge:

  1. Our default should be to stop suppressing wildfires, especially in beautiful natural areas such as National Parks.
  2. Smoke is to be expected in fire-prone areas, and I am willing to have smoky skies if it means mitigation of catastrophic fires in the future.
  3. It is primarily my responsibility to protect myself and my home during a fire.

Too much of changing public opinion is focused on things that the public already agrees with. We should keep doing research and keep talking to people about the costs and benefits of putting more fire on the ground, but this is not enough to drive major policy changes. If it were, we’d see more fire on the ground today, given the many papers and knowledgeable citizens already out there. Instead, I see endless Twitter posts from CalFIRE reporting that another 50 acre fire is already 90% contained (these fires are far, far more common than fires like the Soberanes Fire, which burned for months before reaching this level of containment). We’d hear more about fire managers than the hundreds of firefighters ‘battling’ fires.

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Typical report from CalFire: every fire is a battle.

Environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne has argued that the fire-friendly policies of the 60s and 70s became rare in practice due to a combination of the national politics of the 1980s and the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. Pro-fire rhetoric couldn’t stand up to the scale of the destruction of beloved vistas in Yellowstone. In addition, as time has passed, populations have grown in fire-prone regions, concerns about air quality have grown, and climate change has thrown a wrench into everything, simultaneously increasing urgency and uncertainty in fire management.

We accept the idea that something needs to change in fire management. We accept the idea of more fire on the ground, at least in theory. But when it comes time to put these ideas into action, in the places where we live and work and play, Americans don’t really want fire on the ground. It sounds great if it’s happening somewhere else. But if there’s a real chance that people and homes and places we love could be at risk, we still want firefighters to come put fires out as soon as possible. We believe in prescribed fire where it’s appropriate, but not when the smoke is going to keep us inside or block our views. Personal and political reasoning often trump science, and short term interests usually outweigh long term goals.

There’s a comparison to be made here to efforts to reach the public on climate change and evolution. Now, there aren’t really any ‘wildfire deniers’ that I know of, but in other respects they are similar situations. Many researchers in these fields assume that more research and more explaining the facts will lead to change, but there is evidence that this simply doesn’t translate into action. In all three cases–climate change, evolution, and wildfire–most people know the scientific argument perfectly well. Even climate or evolution skeptics can tell you what the scientists believe. But individual action or broad based policy change are shaped by more than science. 

What can we do to effect real change in wildfire policy? There’s no simple answer here, but I doubt that a single journal article will be a turning point. Neither will another news article about “fighting fire with fire.” If years of doing the same old thing has resulted in little change, we need to rethink our strategy. Instead of telling people that not all fires are scary, we should actually help people learn to live with fire on the ground, even when it scares us.

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?

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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

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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  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.

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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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

 

Fire at Fort McMurray: Talking About Fire in Real Time

 

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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:

Click to view slideshow.

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.