Incidents within Incidents: social perspectives on the global pandemic and wildfire
By Bethany Hannah, Isabeau Ottolini, Kathleen Uyttewaal, Israel Rodríguez Giralt, Míriam Arenas, and Núria Prat Guitart
Open up any newspaper, switch on your TV, or log into social media, and you’ll likely be overwhelmed within seconds with news on COVID-19. It seems that these months, all our attention goes out to this global crisis.
However, while COVID-19 keeps us busy, it is by far not the only disaster we are facing. For instance, the southern hemisphere just ended the worst fire season ever recorded (with events like the Australian Black Summer Fires), though all the world’s attention has bottlenecked to COVID-19. Concerningly, these kinds of fire seasons may become more frequent as the climate emergency worsens. And while the northern hemisphere is prioritizing fire containment and crew safety above all else in the face of COVID-19, it leaves many open-ended questions for many communities facing high levels of manufactured poverty and social injustice that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and fires, all taking place within the long-term disaster of climate change.
If we only keep our eyes glued on COVID-19, and do not consider all these factors combined, we can be caught by surprise, unprepared and vulnerable to these disasters again and again. In other words, the more we focus only on one risk, the riskier other risks become. For example, since the start of the global pandemic, there have been tornados in the US, earthquakes in Croatia and Iran, floods in Indonesia and Kenya, all of which have been exacerbated due to COVID-19. As we enter drought and fire season in some areas, hurricane season in other areas, and monsoon season in still others – all of which will occur under and will be influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic – it is imperative that we consider how these disasters intersect with each other and with our social, cultural, and political frameworks.
Looking at disasters as social-ecological entanglements
There are no “natural” disasters
First of all, let’s pause and rethink the term “natural disasters.”. The term puts us on the wrong foot: disasters are rarely, in fact, purely natural. Rather, we can speak of disasters as processes emerging through technological and social processes (including cultures, policies and economies) that interact with the natural world (#NoNaturalDisasters, n.d.). In the context of wildfires, this means embracing the fact that fire’s context is rooted not just in ecology or the arrangement of fuels, but also in our cultural conditions, politics, socio-economics, and even the language we use to describe fire itself (Wuerthner, 2006).
Once we understand that most disasters aren’t so natural at all, we can reflect upon humanity’s relationship with nature: we are deeply entangled. However, in an attempt to distinguish ourselves from it, as well as to manage and control it, our westernized cultures tend to create all sorts of human – nonhuman distinctions (Herrero, 2015). This creates the notion of an “other,” opposing force that “we” need to rally “against.” In the case of wildland fire, even though fire remains an essential component of land management, and certainly is a necessary part of the natural world, wildland fire is often portrayed and understood to be our adversary (i.e., when we are fighting a fire, we are fighting a foe) (Ingalsbee, 2006).
This is not a war (language matters)
Within the field of disasters, one way of creating distinctions between humans and nature is by using war metaphors. Often, when something is difficult to describe, people reach for metaphors and various other figures of speech, using comparison to illustrate context and put abstract concepts into something concrete or relatable.
For example, the comparison of wildland firefighting with fighting a war (e.g., battlingthe flames, punching in the fireline, suppressing the fire) is prevalent throughout fire literature and media coverage (Pyne 2004). Likewise, with COVID-19 we talk about “controlling, attacking, fighting, war….” For instance, Costanza Musu explains why using these metaphors are so compelling: “It identifies an enemy (the virus), a strategy (“flatten the curve,” but also “save the economy”), the front-line warriors (health-care personnel), the home-front (people isolating at home), the traitors and deserters (people breaking the social-distancing rules).” (Musu, 2020)
This framing, both in the context of wildfires and the pandemic, creates a paradigm that pits us against an adversary and creates a sense of fear, as well as a sense of duty (Hauser, 2015). And yet, several studies and literary works discuss the need to stop using the war metaphor in many fields, because it limits how we examine problems; it creates unrealistic and simplistic pictures of complex, dynamic interactions and in some cases can hurt certain prevention behaviors (Sontag, 1979).
By drawing these strong lines between “we” (humans) versus “others” (nature), we tend to re-naturalize disasters: media outlets have largely treated COVID-19 as if it’s a natural phenomenon because it’s a virus, without linking it both to the context that allowed its creation and global proliferation. It is in fact our extractive industrial economies and globalized food system that cause biodiversity loss and deep societal inequality, and which further provoke the unfolding social and economic disaster (e.g. widespread contagion in care homes, economic upheaval which affects the most socially vulnerable first…).
Again, we can draw a parallel here with wildfire: it is widely known that climate change aggravates the global fire crisis, together with other societal processes like rural abandonment, which often leads to more homogenous forest compositions, especially in Mediterranean landscapes (Chergui et al, 2018). And yet, many popular media and political outlets still frame climate change as nothing more than natural variation in weather.
Overall, we bypass the links of such risks with society, distracting ourselves with thinking of disasters as natural phenomena and placing these beyond the social arena. But we do really need to think about the interactions. And not only think differently, but also talk differently: by changing the discussions, we also change the interactions. If we no longer speak in terms of “natural disasters”, if we no longer use metaphors of war portraying humankind’s struggle to dominate nature, things can change. For instance, a current Twitter hashtag, #ReframeCovid, precisely aims at searching for better ways to talk about – in this case – COVID-19. As Arran Stibbe calls it, we need to search for new narratives and stories to live by (Stibbe, n.d.).
Where do we go from here? Embracing the Entanglement
By accepting our role within disasters we can start taking responsibility for their emergence or aggravation, as well as become empowered to create more long-term, sustainable societal changes. Though the idea of managing wildland fire response under COVID-19 is daunting, it does create a rare opportunity to truly examine every facet of wildland fire management and policy–and even more broadly, disaster and emergency management–with a broader perspective. It’s a chance to step back and look at our relationship and understanding of our history with these processes. We must consider that many valuable lessons can emerge from examining the social and cultural conditions within which disasters occur.
In fact, we have learned some fascinating provisional lessons from COVID-19 so far: this global crisis is being addressed most directly through societal measures, the most important of which is social distancing. While rife with issues in and of itself (regarding social, economic, and emotional well-being to name a few), it is an effective and low-technology method in containing the pandemic. Perhaps more social measures, while paying special attention to alleviating social vulnerabilities, may provide some of the most important tools when facing intersecting crises in the years to come. For instance, prioritizing the care of elderly or impoverished citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, or offering free legal support to undocumented immigrant workers who have evacuated wildfire areas in California, provide critical examples of social measures that also create more resilient societies in the midst of recurring disasters.
Some good news is that many wildland fire management teams are rapidly integrating what we’re learning about the COVID-19 crisis as it unfolds, adapting their approach for what is sure to be a challenging fire season. Fire chiefs and management teams, fire ecology researchers, social scientists, and the general public seem to arrive at similar conclusions when it comes to overcoming the pandemic, this challenging wildfire season, and creating more resilient societies (Moore et al. 2020, Rojas Briales 2020). Across the board, highly participatory and educational actions will be crucial in managing this uncertain future, while relying more heavily on highly mechanized technologies like airplanes and helicopters is met with far more dispute.
These conclusions, described in more detail below, include the need for better communication, recognizing and reducing vulnerability, and fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange.
- Let’s improve our communication. How we communicate crises makes a large difference between a vulnerable and resilient society. Prioritizing honesty, transparency, and trust-building can be just as useful while managing fire on-site, as in communicating emergency information to the public. Meanwhile, misinformation, illegitimate news sources, and an “infodemic” can have devastating effects. This year we are called to communicate the uncertainty of the situation with humility and with thoughtful, deliberate language choice. Precautionary approaches that focus on the utmost safety of fire crews and civilians are prioritized. Meanwhile, extensive educational efforts are critical, paired with challenging but necessary dialogue between sectors and citizens.
- A call for recognizing and reducing vulnerabilities. How can we transform emergency response into long-term resilience? COVID-19 and wildfire crisis experts agree that these phenomena are aggravated by wider social processes like rural depopulation and biodiversity loss. Additionally, populations most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also disproportionately affected by fires: these includesuch as: disenfranchised rural and indigenous communities, or inner city racialized populations with high rates of asthma, respiratory issues and compounding health issues with low access to healthcare (Davies et al. 2018). As such, it is essential to include people in vulnerable and marginalized situations in planning both for COVID-19 and the fire season.>In a sense, this particularly disruptive year also provides an opportunity for change in a direction that centers social equity.
- Fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange. It is paramount to consult expert knowledge from multiple disciplines and sources, including listening to people in the field. If these crises demonstrate anything, we must collaborate across disciplines, and from local to national levels. Special importance is placed on our adaptive capacity to changing conditions–knowing how to deal with uncertainty. This year, emergency services require improvisation and flexibility, facing challenges proactively, learning as we go, and prioritizing care and safety over a “tough it out” culture. Many countries in Europe and North America already are calling for public solidarity and responsibility in containing wildfires (i.e. refraining from lighting campfires anywhere), due to less efficient resource allocation this year in containing wildfires, and fears that smoke particles could aggravate COVID-19 symptoms
This global pandemic has demanded that all of us, in some capacity, turn inward and reflect. And while the complexities of current and future “disasters” feel daunting to say the least, perhaps we can sit with a bit of solace just for a moment, as we realize that many answers already lie directly in front of us and within us: our capacity for acting collaboratively, with honesty and empathy, never goes away and indeed amplifies even in the most dire situations (Solnit 2009).
Once we recognize our role in social-ecological systems (and therefore disasters) we can start to change our language around these processes and consider interruptions in our “normal” society as opportunities for empowering community engagement. Even just a slight change in how the firefighting community frames our understanding of “natural disasters” may help us better understand what we face this year. In fact, we might think of wildfires as an “incident within an incident.” The fire incidents we experience lie within a larger context of COVID-19 and of climate change, spurred by social, cultural, and economic processes. It is time to recognize our interconnectedness and act, proactively, upon it. The lessons from COVID-19 and wildfire seem to be pushing us toward a special and urgently needed opportunity to cultivate resilient societies and foster justice through more democratic communication, diminishing risks, and collaborating in unprecedented ways.
Note on further readings: For more information on wildfires and COVID-19, check out a compilation of resources on the Lessons on Fire Platform, listed in the COVID-19 Wildland Fire Management “Community.”
Bethany Hannah: The Open University of Catalonia, PyroLife Innovative Training Network
Isabeau Ottolini: The Open University of Catalonia, PyroLife Innovative Training Network
Kathleen Uyttewaal: Pau Costa Foundation, PyroLife Innovative Training Network
Israel Rodríguez Giralt: The Open University of Catalonia
Míriam Arenas: The Open University of Catalonia
Núria Prat Guitart: Pau Costa Foundation
- Chergui, B., Fahd, S., Santos, X. & Pausas, J. G. (2018). Socioeconomic Factors Drive Fire-Regime Variability in the Mediterranean Basin. Ecosystems 21(4), 619–628. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-017-0172-6
- Davies, I. P., Haugo, R. D., Robertson, J. C., & Levin, P. S. (2018). The unequal vulnerability of communities of color to wildfire. PLoS one, 13(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205825
- Hauser, D. J., & Schwarz, N. (2015). The war on prevention: Bellicose cancer metaphors hurt (some) prevention intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 66-77.
- Herrero, Y. (2015, December 4) El decrecimiento no es una opción. Lo es llegar a él de manera fascista o justa. Nodo50. Contrainformación en la Red. Accessed 19th May 2020 https://info.nodo50.org/El-decrecimiento-no-es-una-opcion.html
- Moore, P., Hannah, B., de Vries, J., Poortvliet, M., Steffens, R., Stoof, C.R. (2020). Wildland Fire Management under COVID-19. Brief 1, Review of Materials. Wageningen University, The Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.18174/521344.
- Musu, C. (2020, April 8). War metaphors used for COVID-19 are compelling but also dangerous. Accessed May 19, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/war-metaphors-used-for-covid-19-are-compelling-but-also-dangerous-135406
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- Rojas Briales, E. (2020, March 26). Cambio global, resiliencia social y coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.levante-emv.com/opinion/2020/03/26/cambio-global-resiliencia-social-coronavirus/1994524.html
- Solnit, R. (2009). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Penguin Group, New York.
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- Ingalsbee, T. (2006) The War on Wildfire. In The Wildfire Reader: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, edited by George Wuerthner, 262-282. Sausalito, CA: Island Press.
- Sontag, S (1979). Illness as metaphor. New York: Vintage Books.