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Leave it to beavers

My World's on Fire
Leave it to beavers
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #75 • View online
Thanks for reading My World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, subscribe here for disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox every Thursday evening.

Photo of a beaver, courtesy of the National Park Service
Photo of a beaver, courtesy of the National Park Service
No, I didn’t accidentally drop the “little something” I normally share at the end of these issues up top—today’s newsletter is actually about beavers.
Well, it’s really more about wildfire mitigation and scientific messaging, but let’s stay with the beavers a bit longer.
Last month, I noticed a disaster-related tweet making the rounds that stood out to me for an unusual reason: it was absolutely adorable. 
Here’s the tweet—you’ll want to click through to see the video:
Dr. Emily Fairfax
As a scientist I've had an "elevator speech" prepared for a few years now.

This year I made an "elevator video" & let me tell you: people enjoy seeing my research way more than just hearing about it!

So what do #beavers have to do with #wildfire? Watch (with sound) & find out! https://t.co/axc523sRgq
“The stop motion video was about research I was doing on beavers and wildfires and can beaver complexes make it through wildfires—do they function as refuge or do they burn?” Dr. Emily Faixfax explained to me in December about the video she created in 2019.
The short clip shows a beaver building a dam on a river, transforming the surrounding area into a lush landscape. When a fire breaks out, the dammed space remains safe.
Fairfax is an ecohydrologist studying the intersection of the hydrologic water cycle with plants and animals. Her focus, as you might have guessed from the video, is on beavers and how they function as ecosystem engineers, changing the way water moves through an area. In trying to explain this research, she regularly found herself “grasping at straws” to help people imagine beavers in action. So, she downloaded a stop motion video app, shared the results on Twitter, and she’s been flooded with questions about beavers ever since (“there is a lot of misinformation about beavers,” she added).
Fairfax said it’s been really cool to see her research resonate with so many people over the past few years, and she’s made professional connections that have helped inform her current work. She’s still studying beavers and wildfires, now seeing how their habitats fare in extreme wildfire events like the Dixie Fire, which burned just shy of one million acres in California this past summer.
“When you talk about beavers for fire mitigation or fire prevention, it is worth knowing what the likelihood of success in a given landscape is,” Fairfax said. So far, she has yet to find a fire that destroyed beaver complexes.
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Fairfax what advice she had for other researchers looking to share wonky or complicated findings with a wide audience. Be creative, she suggested, and don’t worry if you can’t capture a career’s worth of work in one video or post, just get people interested in learning more.
And then, because I was incredibly curious—what “beaver misinformation” does she keep coming across?
Number one: that beavers eat fish when they actually eat plants (she blames that one on a scene from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe).
And number two: that beavers are not native to most of the United States. 
“Before the European fur trade, there were somewhere between 100 and 400 million beavers in North America,” Fairfax clarified. “That’s a beaver for, like, every kilometer of habitable streams. And they lived in mountains, coasts, highlands and lowlands, and in the desert.”
If this succeeded in getting you curious about beavers and wildfires, I recommend checking out these resources:
Speaking of creative ways to discuss disasters...
Dr. Fairfax inspired me to think about new ways to engage with the topics you read about in here every week. But since I’m not as talented as her at stop motion, I decided to go another route: I’m launching a MWOF book club focusing on fiction novels about disasters. As the massive response to Don’t Look Up clearly demonstrated, there’s a strong desire out there for more stories that tackle these serious topics in a more accessible way, and luckily, there are some great books that do just that.
For the first selection, I picked Olga Dies Dreaming, a New York Times bestseller from Xochitl Gonzalez. It’s a family drama with vivid characters that takes place in the months surrounding Hurricane Maria’s devastating landfall in Puerto Rico. As the book summary explains:
Olga Dies Dreaming is a story that examines political corruption, familial strife and the very notion of the American dream—all while asking what it really means to weather a storm.“ 
Sign up here if you want to join, and plan for a virtual chat about the book on February 24th
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Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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