Here it comes again, another summer for the American West: Historic heat waves which have killed scores of people, ginormous fires which engulf towns, and a sense of dread which doesn’t ever truly go away. As of late, anywhere we look it seems that headlines are dominated by words such as “blazing,” “scorching,” “historic,” “raging” and even “firenado.”
There is a common theme among these words, and this is that they create vivid imagery of all-consuming flames in our minds. Perhaps we need to take a step back and think about the impacts of this coverage.
By no means am I asserting that those words are not accurate; the West is quickly becoming a gauntlet of dangerous phenomena which have never been this severe for this long.
Beyond this, I’m not arguing that headlines should be toned down for the sake of comforting an anxious populace. What I am arguing, however, is that the way wildfires are communicated to Americans fails to educate and illuminate the issue, and mostly just creates more fear.
The first issue I have is with the term “acreage burned.” Simply labeling landscape as “burned” and “not burned” fails to shine light on the many nuances of a fire. How intense were the flames? Had that region been logged before? Did the fire spread into the canopy? Were there lots of dry vegetation and other fuels to burn? Virtually every ecosystem in North America relies on fire in some way, meaning that low-temperature flames can have beneficial impacts to local tree species, such as the lodgepole pine, whose cones are designed to release their seeds during fires. Fire is not the opposite of life; it plays a crucial role in keeping forests healthy. In order to remove these fuels and prepare our forests for an unknown future, it is critical that we use a mixture of prescribed burns and logging to restore these ecosystems.
For the past hundred years, America has led a crusade against forest fires, creating a catastrophic build-up of fuel for said fires to use. When fuel can’t be removed, it doesn’t just disappear; it will sit for ages while more fuel piles in on top of it, until fire does actually come through. When that fire does inevitably come, as it does in the form of fireworks, poorly tended campfires, power lines, ATVs, gunfire, cigarettes and gender-reveal parties, it has more than enough fuel to create vicious, uncontrollable blazes which level entire forests. The other side of this coin is that historically we’ve been big fans of clearcut logging — the reason this matters is because when the natural cycle of forest is broken, all trees come back at the same time, leading to unnaturally thick forests which spread disease and create resource shortages. When a forest is diseased and too competitive, the trees are stressed, making them less resilient.
But you don’t hear a lot about these things in the news! In fact, of the handful of articles I’ve read about the Bootleg Fire, Lava Fire and Beckwourth Complex, I’ve been immensely frustrated by the level of confusion which most of these articles create. Rather than explaining the forces at work, or the actions being taken against them, many have sowed anxiety which has no outlet.
Good reporting informs the public, and in my opinion tells them how to respond if they wish to help. Perhaps it is a pipe dream, but my hope is that forest fires, as well as all natural disasters, are viewed from an objective lens rather than an emotional one.
Copeland Burchenal is an environmental studies major from Missoula.