OOS 26-3 - Managing human-wildfire interactions in a changing climate

Wednesday, August 10, 2011: 2:10 PM
16B, Austin Convention Center
Tania Schoennagel, Geography, University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, CO, Cara R. Nelson, College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula, MT and Max A. Moritz, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA

Wildfire is a global-scale environmental process that interacts with the atmosphere, biosphere and society. Although humans and wildfire have always coexisted, managing fire in ways that reduce risk to humans, infrastructure and ecosystems is becoming increasingly difficult due to changes in exurban development, fuels, and climate. Here, we specifically address for the western US: 1) the social-ecological drivers of human-wildfire interactions, 2) the efficacy of federal policies to mitigate these interactions, and 3) potential pathways for increasing resilience in social and ecological systems to wildfire in a changing climate.


The primary drivers of human-wildfire conflict in the western US are recent expansion of the wildland-urban interface (WUI), increased wildland fuels due to past fire suppression, and climate change. As a consequence, federal agencies initiated the National Fire Plan (NFP) and related policies; in 2001-2008, almost 1.2 million hectares were treated under the NFP to reduce fire risk to communities and ecosystems. In our evaluation of NFP implementation, we found that: 1) only 11% of area treated (2004-8) in the western US was within  2.5-km of the WUI, which is primarily composed of private land; 2) only one-quarter of the West’s forested area is likely to have had uncharacteristic fuels buildup due to fire suppression, which is often emphasized as the primary cause of current wildfire problems, and 3) less than 10% of the area treated was within 1 km of wildfires 4 yrs post-treatment, suggesting a low probability that treatments intended to mitigate fire will burn during their effective lifespan. To increase resilience of fire-adapted forests, we recommend that fire-mitigation treatments have broad restoration goals (i.e. beyond fuel structure) and better account for uncertainty in climate-change effects on fire and other disturbances by creating refugia and promoting ecologically relevant heterogeneity.  Additionally, due to the inherent difficulties associated with reducing fire risk to society primarily through forest-centric policies, we propose a more human-centric approach to managing human-wildfire interactions. Although a large number of homes have been built in the WUI in recent decades, over two-thirds of the WUI in the West remains undeveloped, presenting substantial opportunities for curbing future fire risk. Therefore, we recommend the creation of complementary federal, state and local zoning and cost-sharing policies, comparable in scope to the recent NFP, that promote fire-resilient human communities, and augment fire-awareness and accountability by those who build in fire-prone areas.

Copyright © . All rights reserved.
Banner photo by Flickr user greg westfall.