17 Dec 2018

Living with Wildfire: An Oregon Story

I love the challenge of tackling a complex story that dismantles opinions and assumptions, my own included. My view on wildfire was informed by Smokey the Bear, Bambi, and a few years working as a wildland fire fighter. I’ve felt the “loss” of special places burned. For 100 years, we have waged war on wildfire in the United States, and ironically, have created a more volatile landscape than ever.

It was an honor to confront this issue on behalf of Travel Oregon and share the story of how we are beginning to accept and embrace living with wildfire. A dream team was assembled to craft this story…produced and directed by the brilliant Erin Galey, cinematography by Ben Canales, script and concept development by Kelli Martinelli, edited by the post ninja duo at Happy Pixel, LLC, historic composites done by Chloie Strenge, and a custom score from our friends at Cleod9.

Huge thanks to Paul Hessburg Sr., Mia Sheppard, Lisa Ellsworth-Johnson, and Trey Leonard for their willingness to share their perspectives.

I’ll share my own shift in understanding about wildfire below… Disclaimer: It’s a long and geeky dive.

1. Our word choice is a mirror to some of the beliefs that are cemented in our culture about wildfire. Certain words can also perpetuate the tension and fear we hold in our relationship to wildfire. I often hear the words “disaster”, “devastation” “lost” and “destroyed” in conjunction with a statement about a burning landscape. Let me be clear, I am specifically talking about a natural landscape…when wildfire affects homes, businesses, and lives, these terms may be appropriate. But when used in context with a wild landscape, the use of these words evokes negative and pessimistic assumptions about the future of that place. While we might feel loss, and see destruction, the reality is that we are merely observing a natural and healthy transformation of that landscape on its infinite rotation through a cycle. These extreme and dramatic words perpetuate our fear and aversion to wildfire. “Recovery” is frequently used to describe a post fire landscape that is growing back…but the word suggests that something traumatic and harmful took place, and that the land is recovering toward a more preferred and healthy ideal. Describing a fire with a generic and empty statement like “good” or “bad” opens the door to polarizing opinions, resentment, and animosity from someone who may feel the opposite. A “good” fire for the land may have been quite “bad” for the homeowner who lost their house, or sadly for when lives are lost. It may sound trivial, but our choice of words in our conversations about wildfire are one of the most powerful tools we have in this new era of living with wildfire.

2. Several generations have grown up in the United States programmed to believe that an uninterrupted green carpet of trees is the forest ideal. 100 years of smart and steady marketing have convinced us that a verdant, lush, and old stand of trees represent the supermodel forest. But much like we’ve begun to dismantle obsolete standards of human beauty, we can also reshape our perspective on the definition of a healthy and beautiful forest. The word “mosiac” is a helpful definition of what can be our new Shangri-La. A forest that presents as a patchwork quilt of severe burn, light burn, old and new stands of trees…none of which are “better” than the other, but that combined, form the new picture perfect postcard forest.

3. When we reshape our definition of a healthy forest, we can also let go of the idea that a forest behaves in a linear lifespan, with a new forest maturing into an old forest that we idolize and defend. When we think of forest evolution in an infinite loop, always rotating through a cycle of chapters, its much easier to embrace the impacts of wildfire as just another catalyst toward the next phase. With this perspective, the sensational and negative words we use when we talk about wildfire no longer carry any potency. “Lost” and “Destroyed” are no longer relevant when we talk about a natural landscape.

4. We must accept a future with fire and smoke. We’ve been really good at containing fire for the past 100 years and have grown comfortable with clear skies and dense forests. But the reservoir that we’ve built to contain fire is no longer equipped to hold it back. Fire and smoke have always been a part of this landscape, and ironically, our efforts to suppress it have built up an interest of fire debt that nature is now collecting on. But we have a choice in our payment plan. Part of this choice involves shifting our perspective and language of wildfire from a negative to a positive, and part of this choice involves how we empower our land management agencies like the National Parks, BLM and Forest Service to use and allow fire on the landscape. Professionals have a pretty good idea of how this can be done…they just require a consensus of public support.

5. Social and news media obsession with the sensational devastation and calamity of wildfire reinforces the negative stigma, fear, and loss we associate with wildfire. The narrow and soundbite snapshot we get in our news feed of a much broader and complex condition isolates and perpetuates wildfire as the villain in the story. Especially through social media, all of us contribute content to that story, and we all have the potential and power to shift our cultural perspective. What do we post, share, and say about wildfire and smoke? What news stories about wildfire do we subscribe to and give voice with our views and shares? What are the words we use to talk about wildfire and smoke? Is there the opportunity to champion the struggling communities and businesses in a post fire area rather than lament the transformation of a favorite place?