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Learning to Coexist with Fire: Changing Wildfire Paradigm from Fighting to Coexistence

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The lightning-sparked Castle Rock Fire burned nearly 50,000 acres in 2007 in the Sawtooth National Forest and adjacent state and private lands surrounding Ketchum, Idaho, in the Smoky Mountains region of the Rocky Mountain range. Credit: Kari Geer, courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center

Coexist or perish, new wildfire analysis says: Changing wildfire paradigm from fighting to coexistence

November 5, 2014 University of California – Berkeley

An international team of fire experts have concluded that it is time to stop fighting fires and instead develop strategies to live with fire. In many areas, fire management is difficult or impossible, and interferes with fire’s key role in the ecosystem. Instead, we should develop zoning & building codes and evacuation protocols to allow people to live with fire, just as we now live with earthquake and tornado hazards.

Many fire scientists have tried to get Smokey the Bear to hang up his “prevention” motto in favor of tools like thinning and prescribed burns, which can manage the severity of wildfires while allowing them to play their natural role in certain ecosystems. But a new international research review led by the University of California, Berkeley, says the debate over fuel-reduction techniques is only a small part of a much larger fire problem that will make society increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic losses unless it changes its fundamental approach from fighting fire to coexisting with fire as a natural process.

The paper, “Learning to Coexist with Wildfire,” to be published in the Nov. 6 issue of the journal Nature, examines research findings from three continents and from both the natural and social sciences. The authors conclude that government-sponsored firefighting and land-use policies actually encourage development on inherently hazardous landscapes, amplifying human losses over time. “We don’t try to ‘fight’ earthquakes — we anticipate them in the way we plan communities, build buildings and prepare for emergencies. We don’t think that way about fire, but our review indicates that we should,” said lead author Max Moritz, Cooperative Extension specialist in fire at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. “Human losses will only be mitigated when land-use planning takes fire hazards into account in the same manner as other natural hazards, like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.” The analysis looked at different kinds of natural fires, what drives them in various ecosystems, the ways public response to fire can differ, and the critical interface zones between built communities and natural landscapes. The authors found infinite variations on how these factors can come together. “It quickly became clear that generic one-size-fits-all solutions to wildfire problems do not exist,” Moritz said. “Fuel reduction may be a useful strategy for specific places, like California’s dry conifer forests, but when we zoomed out and looked at fire-prone regions throughout the Western United States, Australia and the Mediterranean Basin, we realized that over vast parts of the world, a much more nuanced strategy of planning for coexistence with fire is needed.

Planning for co-existence

If humans choose to live in fire-prone regions, fire must be managed on par with other naturally occurring hazards, the authors argue, and research must seek to understand what factors and outcomes we can and cannot affect.

One common tool is applicable to the vast array of ecological and social science interactions at the critical wildfire/urban interface: more effective land-use planning, along with the regulations that guide it.

The authors recommend prioritizing location-specific approaches to improve development and safety in fire-prone areas, including:

The authors underscore that wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems and can have a positive long-term influence on the landscape, despite people labeling them as “disasters.” They can stimulate vegetation regeneration, promote a diversity of vegetation types, provide habitat for many species and sustain other ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling.

Around the world, the numbers, sizes, and intensities of fires vary greatly. In some ecosystems, big, severe wildfires are natural events and more climate-driven — by drought or high winds — so fuel reduction is not a very effective tool in these locations. By contrast, many ecosystems that would naturally experience frequent lower-severity fires may respond to vegetation management aimed at both reducing fire hazard to humans and restoring crucial ecosystem processes. But, the authors agree, where fuel reduction is an appropriate goal, it would ideally be achieved by letting wildfires do their job.

A changing climate will complicate management strategies. “How should future fire patterns compare to this historical variability? That’s the big question,” Moritz said. Describing wildfire as “one of the most basic and ongoing natural processes on Earth,” the authors call for a paradigm shift in the way society interacts with it, changing to an approach that achieves long-term, sustainable coexistence that benefits the planet’s ecosystems on the landscape scale, while minimizing catastrophic losses on the human scale. “A different view of wildfire is urgently needed,” said Moritz. “We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. There is no alternative. The path we are on will lead to a deepening of our fire-related problems worldwide, which will only become worse as the climate changes.”

 

Max A. Moritz, Enric Batllori, Ross A. Bradstock, A. Malcolm Gill, John Handmer, Paul F. Hessburg, Justin Leonard, Sarah McCaffrey, Dennis C. Odion, Tania Schoennagel, Alexandra D. Syphard. Learning to coexist with wildfire. Nature, 2014; 515 (7525): 58 DOI: 10.1038/nature13946

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