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The numbers game

My World's on Fire
The numbers game
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #21 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
Credit: NOAA
Last year, I was trying to describe something really, really big in a report. My editors and I tossed back and forth a few metaphors in hopes of capturing the sheer scope of the issue. Ultimately, we ended up comparing it to the mass of all the blue whales in existence.
Which, I’m fairly confident, helped absolutely no one understand what I was trying to say.
I thought of that the other week when I came across this tweet from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) describing the size of an acre.
We often talk about acres when we discuss the size of a wildfire, but do you know how big an acre actually is? Tune in to find out!
In the video, the agency offers a few comparisons of its own. It notes that the burn scar of the River Fire could fit 7 million parked cars. That the North Complex Fire scorched the equivalent of 605 Disneylands. The August Complex Fire, the video explains, could fit seven Lake Tahoes.
Less than a week after that video was published, the August Complex officially became the state’s first “gigafire” in modern history, meaning it’s burned more than 1 million acres. Governor Gavin Newsom tried his hand at describing just what that metric means, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times: “It makes up more than all of the fires that occurred between 1932 and 1999.”
Much like my whales, these comparisons fail to offer a framework for really comprehending how large these fires are and what that actually means.
So today, I wanted to take a step back to offer some more context around the scope of California’s current wildfires. Because the issues at play – including the larger conversations around climate change and disasters – deserve much more nuance than than numbers convey. And they certainly deserve much more context than they’ve been getting in the presidentialdebates.
The size of a fire matters, but…
the conversation shouldn’t end there. In past centuries, millions of acres burned annually in California. Fire has a key role in our ecological systems, and it’s in part the absence of it at this scale that experts believe has made conditions so dire in recent years. If you’re unfamiliar with the concepts of cultural burns and prescribed fires, this ProPublica piece is a good place to start.
Fire scientist Crystal Kolden suggests that we need a new “scorecard” for measuring fires:
“Most of our data sets record only one metric: area burnt. That is too simplistic for us to learn to manage wildfires and the forests that fuel them in our changing climate. We need to focus instead on what is burning.”
That includes looking at the levels of destruction caused by fires, as well as the areas where fire has been applied to a positive effect. We also need to look at the other metrics of the fires, such as how hot they are burning and how fast they are moving.
The Los Angeles Timesarticle I quoted above does a great job of this for the August Complex Fire.
Be wary of claims that there’s a single cause
Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, really summed this up in a recent webinar for Climate Signals:
“Climate change is a significant stressor. Mismanagement of our forest is a significant stressor, and fire exclusion is a significant stressor. The combination of these things exacerbate the negative consequences of fire and perpetuate a response founded in fear and heroism. The removal of Indigenous peoples from our natural role in balancing fire process and function is a root cause that has led to the impacts we all face today.”
In other words, if someone (ahem, politicians) tells you worsening wildfires are the result of just one issue, they’re oversimplifying how our actions over years have created a particularly fraught environment.
This report, also from Climate Signals, gets more in-depth on these various causes.
Or a single solution
I’ve heard multiple experts use the word “portfolio” to describe the approach they believe is needed to address California’s wildfires. There are immediate actions that can be taken to mitigate the high risks we’re facing in this current hot, dry, fire-prone year. Then, there are the longer-term policy changes necessary to mitigate the risks we face in the future. Within both of those frameworks, there are levels of responsibility, from individuals up to officials.
Even then, as climate scientist and very good Twitter follow Daniel Swain says on his site, Weather West, there’s no “silver bullet” that can stop the damage that’s already been done:
“Regardless of our future carbon emission trajectory, there is going to be additional global warming beyond what we’ve already experienced—so that component of wildfire risk is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. Over the next 10-20 years, at least, we’re are going to have to learn to live with continually increasing climate-contributed wildfire risk.”
Once again – if someone (ahem, politicians) tells you worsening wildfires can be solved with one approach, they’re oversimplifying how our actions over years have created a particularly fraught environment.
It can be hard to capture the hopes and frustrations of people involved in this solutions space, but I think this episode of 99% Invisible does a good job.
What we can’t forget
Really, the main takeaway: none of this is happening in a vacuum. None of this is just another #2020 problem. All of this – the scale, the causes, the effects, the solutions, and the human impact – is happening behind those numbers that make flashy headlines and quippy soundbites.
Wildfires have deep roots in the U.S. (and not just in the West, might I add!), and they’ll continue to be a part of our future. And we all need to care about the steps we take to address them, because, as California resident Collin McDonnell told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“We’re really just on the front end of one of the most disastrous parts of climate change. … It’s not like the climate disaster is not coming everywhere else too, we’re just first.”
Newsletter news
For those still bothering to mark the passage of time, this is the sixth month of this newsletter. I’m working on a special edition to mark the occasion, and I’d love your help:
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And, as always…
share your thoughts on today’s edition in the comments, on Twitter, or by replying to this email. Here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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