Public Release: 

Sustainable co-existence with wildfire recognizes ecological benefits, human needs

USDA Forest Service - Northern Research Station

CHICAGO (November 5, 2014) - When wildfire and people intersect, it is often in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, a geography where homes, roads and trails intermix with fire-prone vegetation. In an article published Thursday in the journal Nature, U.S. Forest Service scientist Sarah McCaffrey and her colleagues advocate for an approach to wildfire management that reflects ecological science as well as research on the human dimensions of wildfire and fire management.

"Learning to Coexist with Wildfire," a research review led by the University of California-Berkley, suggests that because forests are ecologically diverse and the communities within them are no less diverse, a "one-size fits all" approach to managing wildfire is neither possible nor desirable.

"Fire has always been a complex and vitally important issue for the U.S. Forest Service as well as all of the agencies and organizations that are responsible for managing land and responding to wildfire," said Michael T. Rains, Director of the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. "Sustainable coexistence with wildfire is both a process and a long-term goal that is being furthered by Forest Service science."

Both the human population and the potential for wildfire are expected to expand in western states, where the WUI has expanded by 50 percent since 1970. At the same time, a changing climate is creating conditions that are expected to increase the number and severity of wildfires. McCaffrey, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station, describes the challenges of balancing fire as a crucial natural process and its potential for negative consequences for both social and ecological systems.

"We know a great deal about fire and managing fire, and we know increasingly more about human communities in fire-prone areas," McCaffrey said. "Understanding how the ecological and human dynamics interact will be vital to reaching a point where people and fire coexist, with fire being managed in a way that achieves ecological benefits and communities developing policies and practices that increase their resilience to fire."

In "Learning to Coexist with Wildfire," McCaffrey and co-authors suggest strategies for achieving coexistence with fire such as:

  • Adopting land use regulations and building codes that take fire hazard into account.
  • Developing vegetation management strategies that are locally appropriate.
  • Evaluating evacuation planning and warning systems.
  • Developing household and community plans for how to survive stay-and-defend situations.

McCaffrey's work centers on the social dynamics of fire management, including the effectiveness of communication efforts during wildfire events.

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The review's authors include Max A. Moritz and Enric Batllori, both of the University of California - Berkley; Ross A. Bradstock, University of Wollongong; A. Malcolm Gill, Australian National University; John Handmer, RMIT University; Paul F. Hessburg, U.S. Forest Service; Justin Leonard, CSIRO; Dennis C. Odion, University of California, Santa Barbara; Tania Schoennagel, University of Colorado, Boulder; Alexandra D. Syphard, Conservation Biology Institute.

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