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Mobilized villages: how local communities acted during the forest fires in 2018 and reorient themselves towards the future

Research project In 2014 and 2018, wildfires erupted in Swedish forests at a magnitude without precedence in modern Swedish history. These wildfires had a major impact on local communities and forestry, also stirring national debate on climate change, forestry production, biodiversity, and the infrastructural challenges for handling disaster connected to extreme weather.

The purpose of this project is to study how local communities in the counties most affected by the wildfires in 2018 mobilized local resources to cope with the wildfire, how local residents narrate the events of the wildfire and its aftermath, and what the wildfire led to in terms of strategies and awareness of sustainable development in the future. A preliminary study of newsmedia show that the wildfires changed the interviewee's lives abruptly, not only their material surroundings, but also their understanding of the past and of possible future seem to have been affected by the wildfire.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

2020-01-01 2022-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Culture and Media Studies

Research area

Ethnology

Project description

The investigation starts from the idea that anthropogenic climate change indeed “changes everything” (Klein 2014) as it alters the way in which interactions between climate and society are questioned (see Hulme & Burgess 2018). In media, the wildfires were described as caused by factors such as lacking infrastructure, modern forestry and global warming, thus turning human agency into a central component of collective understanding of the wildfires (see Holm 2012:16).

This investigation aims towards understanding how civil actors in local communities understand and narrate the events of the wildfires; how they mobilized resources, cooperated, struggled and – not the least - developed strategies for future events, in (seemingly spontaneous) actions activated by the wildfires. Through digital ethnography, ethnographic interviews and participatory observations with local residents in three counties affected by wildfire in 2018, this project examines three questions:

1. How did local residents act during the actual events of the wildfire? What practices were activated by the wildfires in the wake of disaster? Which resources were mobilized during the wildfires? By whom? What socio-economic networks were activated during the wildfires?

2. How are the wildfires and the mobilizations remembered and narrated? How do local residents describe the events and the mobilizations during the wildfires? What kind of belongings and discourses were activated as a consequence of the wildfire (place/locality, global belonging, masculinity, nationality, peripherality, xenophobia etc.)?

3. How do the communities orient themselves towards the future? Does local history have an impact on how local communities imagine possible futures? With the history of forestry as background, do the inhabitants think and act differently about sustainability and climat change after the crisis and to what consequences for future practice?

Through an ethnographic approach, we wish to capture the tensions between the past, the present and the possible future, with the idea of showing the potential for resilient small communities in a world of global climate change. This study contributes ethnographic empirical insight into how disaster can be managed by activating cultural norms and conceptions of time, as well as management of resources in local communities Background and area of research: Disasters have long been the object for study of the social sciences, this project follows the practice of examining disaster not as an arbitrary occurrence, but rather as a result of interrelating social, cultural, political, economic and environmental processes. Within disaster research, there is an emerging humanistic and cross-disciplinary field that critically examines the relation between nature and culture, suggested by some as the “cultural turn” of disaster research (Webb 2007; Holm & Illner 2016).

This study can be placed within this field where humanist scholars has taken a particular interest in the discursively connected nature of disaster imaginaries and narrative genres that structure how disasters are imagined (Holm 2012), how tropes and figures of environmental discourse are formed (Garrad 2004), how disaster myths and metaphors are shaped (Tierney, Bevc and Kuligowski 2006), or how disaster has been imagined historically (Rozario 2007:2). This field provides key insight into how disaster is imagined and therefore also acted upon (Holm & Illner 2016; Kverndokk 2014; Tierney et al 2006), for example by examining how cultural scripts for disaster narratives function (Dynes and Rodríguez, 2007), or how narratives and catastrophization of disaster are shaped (Ekström & Kverndokk 2015:356).

Since our aim is to scrutinize the effects of the wildfires for resilience in a local context, visions and conceptualizations of future events is highly important. Others have also shown how extreme events and disasters are represented in news media and popular culture through an “emergency imaginary” (C alhoun 2010), or made meaningful through a “globalized late modern disaster discourse” (Kverndokk 2014:80). This project shares this literature’s cultural critical analysis of how disaster is imagined through cultural tropes and forms of making meaning out of disaster, yet while these studies examine cultural products, such as books, movies, news-stories and TV-series, this project will study how disasters are made meaningful in the physical space where it happened and to the people who lived through it, more in line with anthropological studies on how disaster is remembered (Baez Ullberg 2017, 2013) or how human interventions in the aftermath of disaster can be understood (Benadusi et al 2011; Sliwinski 2018).

In research about the wildfires in Västmanland 2014, the focus was on disaster management (Lidskog & Sjödin 2015), individual identity and emotional processes in relation to the forest, management of the actual fire and its aftermath (Butler et al 2017;2019; Lidskog et al 2019). The latter of these studies were conducted as large-scale surveys while our project investigates processes in local communities, with ethnographic qualitative methods. The ambition here is closer to research about reconciliation and reorientation in local communities after disasters (Silver & Grek-Martin 2015), focusing more on human action and voluntarily resources than on economic and practical renovation (Toman, E. et al 2013).

The main focus in this study is not the forest, the wildfires in itself, or individual experiences of loss, but how the dislocation caused by the wildfire activated a set of practices, such as the mobilization of resources managed by local communities which makes possible a re-orientation towards the future. We also bring an ethnological method of historical contextualization, in approaching the forest as a site for human experience in the past up until the present (see Fredriksson 1997; Vallström 2010; 2011; Johansson 1994).