How Journalists Should Really Cover Wildfires

After the Rim fire blasts into Sierra Nevada granite and flickers out. After the last gallon of fire retardant rains down on the high-country blaze deep in the Stanislaus National Forest. After the last engine, dozer, helicopter, jet, and drone pull back from the charred land. After the last soot-stained firefighter retraces her steps to base camp, and then heads home. After the last hose is drained, dried, and stored. After the last Pulaski is racked. If, after all that, we begin to plan for the future it may well be too late.

Our culture's relentless focus on the now has shaped the way we have covered this particular fire, those that have erupted this season, and any conflagration dating back to the late 19th-century. Journalism's daily mission, after all, is to keep us abreast of the news as it breaks, the very language of which emphasizes the need to mirror the moment.

Reflect on that as you flip through your local newspaper, watch your favorite anchor, or scroll through relevant websites, catch how every story about the Rim fire (and its analogs) contains a powerful, one-word mantra: containment.

As you repeatedly enunciate it, absorbing its Cold War evocation of sealing off the "enemy," a series of worried questions are unleashed. Is the fire contained? How much is it contained? Why has more containment not been achieved? When, oh when will it be contained?"

In the long run, these queries and the anxiety that they convey are misdirected because they frame the discussion around the resources that are being rushed to the fire front -- human, technological, fiscal. One consequence is that coverage is thus locked on the loaded rhetoric of devastation. Hence the tallying each day of new acres scorched, homes incinerated, campgrounds burned, structures threatened, the number of people evacuated -- or to what degree such grim ends have been averted, thanks to an expanding line of containment.

As the electronic and print media publishes this data of damage and disarray there is little room left for more sustained reflections of what this fire (or any other) means. The first step to securing that knowledge, the planet's best fire historian Stephen J. Pyne has repeatedly enjoined, is to complicate how we talk about fire.

Set aside the concept that fires inevitably, irreparably destroy forests and consider instead the idea that fire may have regenerative capacity. This simple switch of terms would compel us -- writers and readers -- to discover that there is a long history of high-intensity fires in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and that they have served, as this one will, a critical ecological function.

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By opening up dense forest cover, these fires enable some fire-adapted species to take advantage of the burn, just as happens in the Rockies, Wasatch, San Jacintos, and Sawtooths. Among those that will maximize their use of post-Rim fire habitats, argues Chad Hanson of the Earth Island Institute, are the black-backed woodpecker and its food source, wood-boring beetles, along with such opportunistic browsers as deer and black bear.

Not all fire's consequences are as obviously beneficial, at least not for those of us dependent on mountainous watersheds to sustain our thirsty downstream communities. Yet it turns out that in this context, too, words, and the thoughts and actions they generate, matter.

Although some reports about the Rim fire have highlighted San Francisco's complete reliance on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, located within Yosemite National Park, they have been freighted with dire anticipation -- will airborne ash clog up its century-old works, imperiling the City by the Bay's supply of potable water and electricity?

The immediate answer is no, or at least not yet, leading the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to predict that due "to the rocky, granite terrain and limited brush along the perimeter of the reservoir, there is little risk for direct impacts on the reservoir."

Whatever relief this response may bring to its anxious customers, it may only be temporary and is certainly partial. That's because the real question, which compels us to think across a multi-year future, is what happens when rain falls and snow flies in the high-elevation watershed of the Tuolumne River that feeds the threatened reservoir?

This coming winter and spring, and in successive storm seasons, precipitation landing on the burned-over terrain may trigger debris flows that could compromise the water quality within and the functioning of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir as spigot and generator.

Denver had to confront a similar challenge in the wake of the massive Hayman fire of 2002. Then the largest and most intense blaze in Colorado history, it had a major impact on the Mile-High City's water supply. Ever since, the American Planning Association reports, the tributaries of the Upper South Platte River have experienced an "increase in the number and severity of flooding events" which in turn has let loose "large amounts of sediment and debris threaten[ing] the vitality of watersheds and ecosystems." These post-fire environmental consequences accelerated public and private collaborations to restore affected riparian ecosystems, an involved and expensive process that continues more than a decade later.

The 2009 Station fire likewise damaged key portions of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers' watersheds, leading to initial interventions, with more projected, to regenerate forest cover, river flow, and water quality.

It's unfortunate that San Francisco did not pick up on these broad hints and in advance work with local, state, and federal agencies to reduce the threat that a fire like the Rim could pose to its single-source water supply. But this would have required the city's Public Utility Commission and Division of Public Works to think proactively, for journalists there and elsewhere to offer more historically informed stories contextualizing fires across time and space, and for us collectively to build a more forward-thinking culture determined to resolve problems before they blow up in our faces.

Maybe that is a lot to ask, but surely it is preferable to taking passive comfort in headlines like the one splashed across a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times: "Rim fire containment expected Sept. 10."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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