This week, I’ve been attending the International Association of Wildland Fire
‘s “Climate & Fire” conference. One of the first panels I watched featured Dr. Crystal Kolden, a pyrogeographer at the University of California, Merced. I’ve referenced
her work in the past relating to the need to reframe how we measure wildfires. Kolden believes we should focus less on their size, or “area burnt,” and more on what
is burning — like the houses lost and people left unsheltered, the utility infrastructure destroyed, and the schools damaged.
We also need to be factoring in the cost of doing nothing, she said during her talk on Monday.
I’ve been thinking about that sentiment following the devastating news out of Texas
. When it comes to matters of public policy, inaction is its own action, and the repercussions of that were made painfully clear this week.
I’ve seen a few viral posts circulating since Tuesday that contrast mass shootings in the US with disasters like hurricanes. The implication has been that policies and laws can impact the former while the latter is “natural.” I’m purposefully not sharing these posts, as I recognize that this is a deeply painful week, and I don’t want to criticize individuals responding to trauma. At the same time, as a journalist focused on disasters, it’s a falsehood I don’t feel comfortable leaving unaddressed.
There are policies that can help mitigate the impacts of natural hazards on communities, and there is a lot of data, research, and anecdotal evidence to support that. Using wildfires as an example, I attended another panel this week that showed how building codes influenced the survival of single-family houses during the Camp Fire (drawing from this study
); multiple others that demonstrated
the value in conducting controlled burns
While it’s true that we can’t always prevent these hazards — that there will be fires and floods and tornadoes and earthquakes — it’s also true that they don’t all have to become disasters. To consider the “cost of doing nothing” requires an understanding first that something can be done, actions are available, and there are people who hold the power to make that happen.
I wanted to end with by sharing this edition
about consuming media in times of crisis. While it was originally published in 2020, I hope some of the strategies can continue to be helpful as you navigate the news.