The Headline Trap
Or, in search of balance between overview knowledge and detailed understanding
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012
Recent wildfire seasons have provided mainstream media with plenty of material for dramatic images and attention-grabbing headlines, some more accurate than others. We often worry that misleading coverage can deliver the wrong message to the public, but it can also be a problem among wildfire professionals. Lately, I’ve had to re-evaluate my own methods of understanding wildfire news and where it comes from, as well as how I transmit that information to colleagues and the public.
Take, for example, the recently issued USDA Forest Service report on the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder, Colorado. The report discussed fire conditions, factors contributing to structure losses and other damage, and potential ways to prepare for future wildfire threats. In their coverage of the report, several Colorado newspapers ran headlines that questioned whether wildfire mitigation efforts worked to reduce risk to the affected burn area — top-level findings for the topic on Google Alerts included headings such as “Fuel Treatments Ineffective.”
It was possible to skim these articles and conclude that the fuel treatments weren’t well executed and did not sufficiently modify fire behavior. My own impressions were reinforced by colleagues who forwarded the same article links to each other and posed similar concerns.
But when I took the time to sift through the actual findings in the report, I arrived at a very different conclusion: In fact, no general inference could be made about the fuel treatment efficacy, because the fuel treatments weren’t necessarily designed to modify fire behavior or burn severity. The supporting details were easily overlooked, though, since they were buried in the 100-plus pages of technical research that often requires an in-depth knowledge of the subject to understand.
A similar problem can arise with visual imagery, as demonstrated by the recent Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs. News coverage showed seemingly untouched homes next to charred landscapes, with captions referring to the surviving structures as “miracles.” But such descriptions mask the real reason why one home survives and others do not. Without hard evidence and official reports, it can be difficult to explain, even for the most seasoned wildfire professionals, why some houses survive and others do not. It wasn’t until I met with the Colorado Springs Fire Department that I developed a better understanding of this particular incident and the reasons why some structures were more vulnerable.
I’ve become a pro at skimming national headlines to stay on top of wildfire news, but in saving time, I can lose the ability to offer informed assessments of a topic. And speaking for my wildfire colleagues around the country, I know I’m not alone. Even when media coverage is accurate, I can miss those essential details buried in a report that clarify the real story. Do I have time to read every report? No, but those that directly relate to mitigation and scientific principles that underscore survival, damage, and loss — the principles that drive fire-adapted communities concepts — should be treated like gold. Carving out time to engage with peers beyond quick email discussions, such as professional discussion groups on LinkedIn, can help address this dilemma. As professionals, we have an obligation to understand the details if we want to talk as subject matter experts.
The next time I see mitigation principles challenged, I will remind myself to go back to the primary source. In an age of sound bites and top-level overviews, it’s essential that we take the time to truly understand the big picture.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.