The AP Stylebook Twitter feed (a good follow) posted this today:
Use square miles to describe the size of fires. The fire has burned nearly 4 1/2 square miles of hilly brush land. Use acres only when the fire is less than a square mile. When possible, be descriptive: The fire is the size of Denver.
They don't give a rationale, but one can guess it's because the size of an acre escapes more and more readers. However, we talk in acres because it is our wildland fire cultural and bureaucratic default. PIOs should recognize this issue and assist media and the public in understanding the size of incidents by covering both bases: "The fire is X acres, which is about the size of Y."
However, the unstated (I was tempted to use "larger") issue here is that we are seeing more incidents on a scale that defies common understanding. Think of it in terms of money. During the early years of the 20th century, it was tough for people to imagine $1,000 and now, we routinely come across mentions of billions and trillions of dollars, often illustrated by stacks to the moon, swimming pools filled with $100 bills, and so on. With wildfires, 5,000 acres was once a large fire and while there were examples of much larger fires, they were uncommon. Today, it's not remarkable for a fire to hit 100,000 acres. We are in a time of Rockefeller and Vanderbilt fires.
Acreage is a tough image to convey and we need to put some thought into it. Referencing a city, as the AP Stylebook recommends, seems problematic. Are we talking Denver proper, the Denver metropolitan area, or the drive out to the airport? I'd look for more definitive boundaries like "half the size of Rhode Island (777,000 acres)" or "about 1/4 the size of Yellowstone National Park (2.2 million acres)."
You can also use other measurements to convey size in a way that is more comprehensible to the general public. In 2015, I used this a bunch: : "There is more open fireline in Oregon and Washington than coastline in Puget Sound and if you put it all together, it would stretch from Seattle to Milwaukee."
Of course, we can also find new ways to describe what an acre is. For instance, I had not thought of a line of potatoes until I started looking for a good visual for this post.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.