Peshtigo: Paradigm or paradox?, by Peter Sells

Peter SellsMay 18, 2011 – Whatever else is going on in Canada this week pales in comparison to the fires that are ravaging Slave Lake and other communities in Alberta. These fires come just as the flood waters are receding to the east in Manitoba and Quebec, but no doubt those Albertans whose homes and businesses have been destroyed are too preoccupied with their own thoughts to appreciate the irony.

Likewise, those of us who have been threatened by neither water nor fire this spring are focused on our own affairs. As Harry Truman said, “It’s a recession when your neighbour loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.” Everything is relative to your position and perspective, which act together to put you into your own philosophical or theoretical framework – also known as a paradigm – with respect to any given situation.

Here’s a famous example: the town of Peshtigo, Wis., along with several smaller communities, was overrun by wildfire on Oct. 8, 1871. If the name Peshtigo doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the date will. On that same day, according to legend, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in Chicago and there was a hot time in the old town that night. The Great Chicago Fire killed 300 people and destroyed 810 hectares of what was already a major city, causing more than $220 million in damage. Here’s where the paradigm enters the picture: although the story about the cow and the lantern is a fiction attributed to an enthusiastic newspaper reporter, that’s the story that most of us know. The status of Chicago as a major urban centre for business, information and media, cemented the fire as the greatest disaster of its time in the minds of the public, even before the first singing of the charming but somewhat macabre tune we all learned as kids. The estimated 2,400 victims in Peshtigo and the other towns remain largely unsung, and many of them forever unidentified. The 480,000 hectares of forest have grown back, been harvested and the land developed. Cheer, boys, cheer.

So there is my version of the Peshtigo paradigm. The perceived magnitude of a disaster is dependent upon the degree to which that disaster directly impacts the observer, or upon the exposure of the observer to information regarding the impact of the disaster on others, regardless of the verity and breadth of that information. Verity: Did the cow actually kick the lantern? Breadth: Did information about Peshtigo factor into your perception of the magnitude of the simultaneous Chicago event? Applying the Peshtigo paradigm to the situation in Slave Lake, your perceived magnitude of the disaster would depend on how close you or your loved ones live to northern Alberta and upon how much attention you have been paying to national news media for the past week. If your media intake is limited to the sports page or to U.S. network programming, then you may have had little or no exposure to the news of the destruction of a town of almost 7,000 people, and the potential impact of the fires on oil production and delivery. Then again, if that describes your media habits, you are probably not reading this blog.

The Peshtigo and Slave Lake fires also illustrate another phenomenon that I will dub the Peshtigo paradox. It goes like this: residential and industrial development in the wildland interface is encouraged by economic advantage and discouraged by economic and human risk. Everyone wants a nice house nestled in the woods on the side of a mountain, but if you lessen the fire-exposure risk by trimming the brush back from the community, then you take away some of the perceived value of the real estate. Similarly, mineral, forest or hydroelectric resources often provide the economic incentive for huge industrial investments in very remote areas, regardless of the potential for loss associated with wildfire or flood.

The takeaways for this blog? Stay aware of fire events and emergency-management challenges across Canada and around the world. Every one of them has real costs in terms of lives and money, and every one of them presents a learning opportunity for each of us. Avoid developing a Peshtigo paradigm of narrow perspective. If the community you serve has inherent wildland or floodplain risks, ensure that your emergency-management programs have a solid mitigation component combined with the resources to respond to the once-in-a-century events. More about that topic coming up in my June FlashPoint column.

Comments? Do you think the Canadian media do an adequate job of covering emergency-response events in all parts of the country in a balanced way?

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