“Words on Fire: Towards a New Language for Wildland Fire”

“Words on Fire: Towards a New Language of Wildland Fire”

The premise of “Words on Fire” was that the words we use to describe our terms of engagement with fire shape the stories we tell about it. And the stories we tell shape the way we act. Unfortunately, as Stephen Pyne remarked in the symposium, our “words have failed our drip-torches and pulaskis” and our narratives are limited and out-dated.

“Words on Fire” considered the constraints and possibilities of wildland fire language and narrative by convening an unorthodox blend of scientists, managers, and humanists. Presenters included one of the world’s foremost fire scholars; a USFS District Ranger with fourteen years experience managing a fire-prone district; a microbiologist and dancer; a scientist and fire modeler; an former firefighter and self-proclaimed “pyrogandist”; and a Zen-practitioner and author.

The presentations and conversation ranged from cultural narratives and media tropes, language and perception, communication and change, poetry and public lands, metaphor and creative vision, all under the rubric of wildfire, all with the goal of helping us forge ever more thoughtful, realistic, flexible, and creative relationships with wildland fire. Though the conversation covered a lot of ground, it also honed in on certain themes:

  • We have a limited set of cultural wildfire narratives—fire-as-battlefield being the predominate narrative. Our language, our media portrayal, and public understanding of wildfire reflect this limited set.  Further collaborations with and insights from the humanities may help create new narratives and language.
  • New narratives and revitalized language won’t arise unless we re-install fire as part of our daily lives. New and diverse language—especially verb-heavy vernacular— will arise from grass-roots, community-based relationships with fire. In the end, citizens need to decide what they want their public lands to be and how they should be managed. Once we decide on what we want our land to be, we can decide fire’s role on the land and how we speak about it.
  • Changing our dominant wildfire narratives will involve finding an appropriate story-line and positioning new stories in terms of known stories. But more so we need to expand and embrace linguistic and narrative diversity: it’s not a matter of transplanting one narrative or language-set for another (replacing negative terms with neutral scientific language or value-laden positive language), it’s a matter of expansion and the use of many languages. As Pyne put it, future “language should be as free-ranging as free-ranging fire.”
  • That said, a top-down approach can be effective: a change in USFS management would filter down to firefighters, then to the media, and then the public. A number of value-laden words, terms, and concepts could easily be changed: “Fire-resistant communities” could be “fire-compatible communities;” “Community Wildfire Protection Plans” could be “Community Fire Preparation;” “fire safe landscapes” could be “fire permeable landscapes;” etc.

Words on Fire was held Nov. 1-2, 2012, at Oregon State University and organized by the Spring Creek Project, in collaboration with Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP); the Northwest Fire Science Consortium; U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station; and Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

Presentations from “Words on Fire” can be seen here: