WildfiresThe fundamental challenges of living with wildfire

Published 15 May 2019

Wildfires can have dramatic impacts on Western landscapes and communities, but human values determine whether the changes caused by fire are desired or dreaded. This is the simple - but often overlooked - message from a collaborative team of researchers.

Wildfires can have dramatic impacts on Western landscapes and communities, but human values determine whether the changes caused by fire are desired or dreaded. This is the simple - but often overlooked - message from a collaborative team of twenty-three researchers led by University of Montana faculty in a study published in the May issue of the journal BioScience.

The interdisciplinary team developed a framework that helps integrate scientific understanding of fire and its effects on ecosystems and human communities with an understanding of the human values that ultimately determine what people care about in and want from landscapes.

Montana says that part of the unique story behind this research is how it was undertaken: It was born from an interdisciplinary effort from a group of leading ecologists and social scientists from across the U.S. As part of a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program, this group gathered at UM to help tackle the question: “What does it mean for ecosystems and communities to be resilient to wildfires?”

Workshop participants and coauthors at UM in May 2017. Workshop participants and coauthors at UM in May 2017. The discussions that ensued were lively, challenging and invigorating. The paper published this week is a key outcome from that effort. “One of the most satisfying parts of this work is that it represents a genuine team effort, integrating perspectives from varying disciplines and backgrounds. This is the type of interdisciplinary perspective needed to help us figure out how to better live in an increasingly fire-prone West,” said Philip Higuera, lead author of the study and UM associate professor of fire ecology in the Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences.

“Communities and fire managers across the West are told they need to be more ‘resilient’ to wildfire, but it’s actually pretty unclear what that means and what that resilience would look like on the ground,” said Alex Metcalf, UM assistant professor of human dimensions and paper coauthor. “We developed this framework to help people work through this process to ultimately ‘live well with wildfire.’”

“While fire ecology helps society understand the role of fire in ecosystems and the important impacts fires have on forests, decisions on how people live in an increasingly fire-prone West are complex and tug on deeply-held human values. Conversations about fire management - and land management in general - have to start by identifying what aspects of a landscape or community humans value and thus want to protect or promote,” said Higuera.

So what does resilience to wildfire look like? The answer, the paper emphasizes, needs to come from community members, policy makers and land managers working together, calling upon the best scientific understanding of how fire operates and how it affects the things we value. This past April, the research team held a workshop at UM with 21 land managers and community leaders, as a next step in the larger research project. The group worked through the process of identifying what resilience means to them and how they can promote social-ecological resilience in their own communities.

— Read more in Philip E. Higuera et al., Integrating Subjective and Objective Dimensions of Resilience in Fire-Prone Landscapes,” BioScience 69, no 5 (May 2019) (doi: org/10.1093/biosci/biz030)

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