Describing the size of a fire

The Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting article about how to describe the size of fires. The author, Merrill Perlman, laments that the general public has trouble visualizing what an acre looks like, let alone a large number such as 260,000 acres. Here is an excerpt:

…So what’s a better measurement? Square miles are useful. (A square mile is about 640 acres.) Nearly everyone knows how long a mile is, and it’s easier to visualize the size of a square with one mile on each side.

Using square miles also makes the numbers seem less dramatic. The 2,500 acres that were replanted in Arizona in the example above translates to about four square miles, which suddenly doesn’t seem so big. The 260,000-acre figure above is about 406 square miles. Putting them in a more manageable perspective will allow readers to say “Gee, that’s big.” Or not.

But you should be cautious with square miles, too: Just how big is 406 square miles?

American readers can usually understand the timeworn—but effective—comparison to the size of a state. For example, 406 square miles is about a quarter of the size of Rhode Island (1,545 square miles), or the equivalent of six Districts of Columbia (68.25 square miles). Or you can use a local equivalent: In the Southwest, you can say that the 260,000 acres consumed by fire is the equivalent of about one-quarter the size of Grand Canyon National Park; in the Northeast, it could be equivalent to almost eighteen Manhattans. The point is to keep the “equivalent” number small and relevant.

One further caution: Use “equivalent” when giving a size or comparison. No fire consumes in a *rectangular pattern, so even “square miles” or “acres” can make a reader think of a nice, neat pattern. And fires are nothing if not messy.

Making better comparisons can make for fewer “acres” and pains for readers.

*Check out the Onion’s report of a fire that “raged back into control”.

via @Firescaping

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.