HOT TAKE: Of Wildfires and Argumentation

What Comm Program Professor Alena Ruggerio is Reading This Summer

In September, the homes of at least twenty employees of Southern Oregon University burned to ash in the Almeda fire, with an even larger number of students affected. The Obenchain fire still burns to the north. Included among the firefighters currently battling blazes across Oregon, Washington, and California are some of our own SOU students.

Elizabeth Weil’s reporting for ProPublica explains why everyone from Native American communities to environmental scientists agrees that controlled burns can mitigate the kind of conflagration that tore north up Highway 99 on September 8, yet we’ve failed to practice controlled burns in the American West:

Weil’s report attracted the interest of the Comm Program’s Alena Ruggerio, who is connecting rhetoric and wildfires in an online section of COMM 343 — Argumentation and Critical Thinking this term.

Photo of trees on fire in controlled burn
Photo of trees on fire in controlled burn
Photo Credit: Cameron Strandberg/Creative Commons License

“Fire may be a phenomenon of oxygen, heat, and light,” Ruggerio said, “but it occurs in the context of human communication. Even the natural sciences of physics and chemistry have rhetorical aspects. That’s why the study of communication is the master key to everything else.”

Weil blames multiple factors for blocking the use of controlled burns, including organizational structure and greed. The U.S. Forest Service was modeled on the military, which leads to a “war on fire” aimed at total eradication. Moreover, Cal Fire is a multi-million-dollar fire-suppression business. There’s no financial incentive to change.

“The word for this in argumentation theory is inherency,” Ruggerio said. “It’s the part of a debate case that identifies the laws, norms, and attitudes baked into the status quo that prevent the problem from being solved. We need a new policy stronger than these inherent barriers.”

When approaching controversial topics, Ruggerio also advocates a skeptical vetting of information sources. She gives credence to ProPublica, which is a nonprofit investigative journalism organization funded by philanthropic agencies. It employs independent, professional reporters whose work has been recognized with multiple Pulitzer Prizes. Every communication message comes from a specific position, according to Ruggerio, but some positions are more credible than others.

In the end, prescribed burns might not have prevented our community’s wildfire tragedy. But Ruggerio is persuaded that if we don’t change our current fire policy, such tragedies will continue to occur.

While we are getting ready for a Fall term unlike any other, Communication and Digital Cinema faculty at Southern Oregon University are sharing weekly Hot Takes of things we are reading, watching and doing that get us excited to get back in the (virtual) classroom. Stay connected with whatever got you to this post, and we’ll look forward to bringing you more communications about Communication soon.

Earn BA/BS Degrees and Certificates in Communication Studies, Social Media & Public Engagement, or Digital Cinema @SOUAshland. #ThatIsSOU