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It’s time we change how we talk about wildfires

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A firefighter sprays water on hot spots while battling the Glass Fire on October 01, 2020 in Calistoga, California.

Long ago, Mollie, the woman who would eventually become my wife, taught me a lesson in pejorative language. I won’t go into details, but I quickly understood how language can influence perception. 

Pejorative language is found in many other situations. With regards to wildfire, there is an almost universal tendency to suggest blazes have “destroyed,” “incinerated,” “damaged,” and that they are “apocalyptic” and a “tragedy,” which is language that exaggerates the effects of fires. If a wildfire burns down homes, it is certainly a disaster. If it leads to deaths, it is definitely a tragedy. But if a fire only burns through a forest, and even if it kills many trees, it is considered by many conservationists, ecologists, among others, an ecological rejuvenation or ecological enhancement. 

Nearly all ecosystems in the Western United States (and elsewhere) rely on wildfire for rejuvenation. Unfortunately, pejorative language influences public policy. If wildfires are only characterized as destructive or otherwise unwelcome, we will continue to waste public dollars fighting fires that we ought to leave alone, or we’re going to continue logging the forests to preclude a natural and essential ecological process. 

The media tends to exaggerate wildfire effects and nearly always characterizes them as unfavorable; they focus on the acres that fires destroyed, and they write that the fires were a disaster. Even many forest service officials, and quite a number of fire ecologists who should know better, unconsciously use words that convey an unfavorable value. 

Such terms feed into the public’s misperception that wildfires are only destructive. While they can cause a lot of damage to people’s homes and property, we can’t forget that forest wildfires are critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Even fires that kill a significant percentage of trees and result in snag forests, which provide habitat for numerous wildlife species that utilize dead trees for a home, kitchen or just hanging out (roosting). 

Down logs that fall into streams create structure in waterways that slow erosion and provide some of the best habitats for fish. These logs also support aquatic insects, which in turn increase the food for birds and bats. Indeed, in general, wildfire tends to enhance the productivity and biodiversity of streams. 

Another unappreciated benefit of wildfire is its influence on carbon storage. Though some carbon is initially released when any vegetation is burned, a significant amount of carbon remains on-site in the tree boles (snags), down wood, roots and soil as charcoal. Plus, charred wood rots more slowly and therefore stores carbon longer than unburnt wood.

Researchers at Oregon State University have estimated that between 2011 and 2015, forest fires only accounted for 4 percent of Oregon’s total carbon emissions each year, whereas logging accounted for roughly 35 percent. Forests hold on to most of their stored carbon even after severe wildfires, as long as the standing dead trees (snags) are not targeted by so-called “salvage” logging. 

A more informed perspective would recognize that wildfires have a significant ecological role in ecosystem health. A fire that burns down someone’s house is a regrettable “disaster,” but a blaze that chars a forest is more likely to invigorate the landscape. It’s time to replace negative, pejorative language often associated with wildfires with more neutral words that describe the fire’s impact on the ecosystem as “changing,” “regenerating,” “renewing,” “refreshing,” “revitalizing,” or  “restoring” the forestlands. 

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has spent decades researching fires. He has published two books on wildfire including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”

Tags Conservation Ecology Ecosystems forest fires forest thinning logging Reforestation wildfires

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