Words Matter: It’s not fuel

Words matter.

We’ve had quite a discussion on our Facebook page this past week over the word “fuel.” It is related to the misuse of the word “forest” for the four national forests in southern California. Habitat is not fuel. Chaparral is not forest.

When a word is used that has the impact of masking necessary details or truth, it needs to be called out for what it is. Yes, shrubs provide fuel for fires to burn. Yes, the four large federal land holdings in California are part of the national forest system. But both words fail miserably in communicating what they are supposedly describing.

Worse, these words minimize and marginalize in the same way ethnic slurs demean entire groups of people. By continually describing the burning chaparral habitat as fuel during the fire in Glendora this past week, NBC was dismissing a valuable ecosystem. It is unlikely it would use the word “fuel” to describe a burning neighborhood or fire victims who ended up in the burn ward.

Why does it matter? Why do we disagree with those who are asking us to “get over it?”

One only has to observe what has happened to word choices as numerous minorities in our country have demanded equality. Words can have powerful impacts and can shape our attitudes and actions.

Calling a person by her real name is powerful. She will feel welcomed as her sense of belonging grows. Others will feel it too. As her name is heard in conversations, people will remember her identity as an individual and will more likely recognize her in a crowd. Over time, she might even be paid as much as a he for the same job.

It’s time to use the right words and ditch the ones that are dis-empowering or mask the truth.

Speaking of names, it is time to start calling the four national “forests” in Southern California by their right name (see photo below).

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Myths persist about wildfires in Southern California

There are a number of serious misconceptions about wildland fire in a 10/27/13 reflective article in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the 2003 Cedar Fire.

1. The Cedar Fire was not the largest forest fire in California history. The largest wildfire in California history was the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire. This is a well known fact in the fire science community and could have been discovered by typing into Google, “largest fire in California.” The Cedar Fire also wasn’t a “forest” fire. Except for a few areas in Cuyamaca, nearly all that burned was chaparral. This is an important distinction because the public has a difficult time understanding that fire acts differently in various ecosystems. More on the Santiago Canyon Fire here: http://www.californiachaparral.org/images/K2009_Large_Fires_Debunking_EA.pdf

2. Fires in southern California do not “naturally” burn in a “patchwork pattern.” Chaparral has a crown fire regime. When it burns, especially during Santa Ana wind conditions, it naturally burns intensely, over large areas, and leaves behind little more than a moonscape. The notion that the way the Cedar Fire burned was somehow unnatural, as the quoted State Parks representative believes, is not supported by the last 20 years of research. The papers explaining this can be found here: http://www.californiachaparral.org/fire/firescience.html

Also, the article leads the reader to think that the ceanothus currently growing in Cuyamaca is doing so as some kind of invading, unnatural “monoculture.” This is a value-laden forester’s perspective, one that places greater value on timber than the natural regeneration process of a post-fire environment. It is the same perspective that has led State Parks to conduct extremely damaging “reforestation” projects. We have summarized these projects here: http://www.californiachaparral.org/threatstochaparral/elossincuyamaca.html

The quotes you used from the USFS representative apply to dry ponderosa pine forests in the southwest, not the mixed conifer forests in Cuyamaca. There is not enough science to support the notion that past fire suppression was responsible for what happened during the Cedar Fire in Cuyamaca. For reference, much of Cuyamaca burned in the 1889 Fire in the same manner it did during the 2003 Cedar Fire. This was long before the era of fire suppression.

It would have been helpful to double check these perspectives with the lead fire scientist you did interview, Dr. Alex Syphard. She has done extensive research on fires in southern California and is quite familiar with the latest science. The suggestion that there is a “fire deficient” in our region or that chaparral is supposed to burn in a “patchwork” is contradicted by what Dr. Syphard was quoted as saying later in the article.

Although it was good that Dr. Syphard’s comments were included, the average reader will likely still come away with the notion that chaparral needs more fire due to past fire suppression impacts. There is zero evidence for such a perspective. In fact, fire suppression has actually protected our native shrublands from too much fire. Dr. Syphard’s quoted statement also supported this. More here: http://www.californiachaparral.org/threatstochaparral.html

When it comes to fire, communicating the science properly to the public is essential because misconceptions not only lead to damaging land use practices, but can also encourage actions that increase fire risk in both human and natural communities.

The article:

Addendum: Another bit of mythology that you’ll probably stumble upon is the photo below. It is NOT a photo of the Cedar Fire as is often claimed. It’s actually a photo of the 2003 Old Fire, taken by Chris Doolittle from his backyard looking up Highway 330 in San Bernardino.


The Rim Fire did not “kill everything”

It’s time to replace the incorrect “forest fires kill everything” notion reflected in the LA Times article on the Rim Fire (9/24/13) with what actually happens. A burned forest is full of life-in-reserve. It will recover despite our hand wringing.

It was gratifying to read a clear explanation at the end of the article of the factors that led to the Rim Fire: past logging, climate, and to a minor extent, past fire suppression. It was also good to see mentioned that intense fires such as this are not abnormal. We only wish these points had been mentioned at the beginning. As a consequence, it is likely the main take away for the average reader will be that this fire “killed everything,” the soil was “cooked,” the charred trees have “no value,” and if we don’t do something soon, the landscape will “permanently convert to chaparral.”

Such statements are based on outdated perspectives, mainly that a forest has no value unless it can be logged. For example, charred trees have tremendous value as habitat-rich building blocks for a recovering forest. Despite the heat, the soil will be fine and the sediment that reaches the streams will introduce a rich variety of nutrients to the aquatic environment. To warn that “if we don’t intervene, it will convert to brush,” indicates that there is a clear misunderstanding about natural, post-fire processes.

How did the forest ever survive without us?

Photo below: the remarkable recovery since the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. The careers of a number of land managers were ruined because of the political pressure and hype about how the Yellowstone Fires were the fault of the fire service, past fire suppression, and that the park had been “destroyed.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Unfortunately, we haven’t learned. The misconceptions continue with the Rim Fire.

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