Rethinking resilience to wildfire: interdisciplinary discussions provide ideas for better living with wildfire

Aug 19, 2019
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Despite our best efforts to manage wildfire, mainly through suppression, year after year of record-breaking fire seasons are increasingly impacting communities and ecosystems. While ecologists and social scientists have been actively engaged in understanding and responding to the current wildfire crisis, there have been few examples where researchers from both fields have worked together to discuss this urgent challenge collaboratively. We brought together ecologists and social scientists to confront this challenge and consider how to better promote both social and ecological resilience to a more flammable world. The result led to the new insights highlighted in the paper “Rethinking resilience to wildfire” – that catastrophic wildfires are forcing us to rethink what social–ecological resilience to wildfire means, and accept that more diverse approaches to resilience thinking are needed to facilitate human coexistence with wildfire.

For the ecologists who participated in this work, a light bulb turned on when social scientists related that, in social systems, the traits associated with resilience often include adaptation and transformation. That is, individuals and communities have shown the capacity to adapt and fundamentally reorganize their way of living in response to a shock or crisis, and this capacity can be a desired trait. Traditionally, ecologists defined resilience very differently, in terms of how quickly and to what extent components of a system return to a pre-disturbance state. In the ecological framework, post-fire changes that result in fundamental changes to the structure and composition of ecosystems (adaptation and transformation) are not typically defined as a resilient system. Yet, in this era of rapid climate change, ecologists are increasingly recognizing that returning systems to pre-fire states can be difficult or even impossible. The stimulating discussion spurred by cross-fertilization of ideas across disciplines highlighted this important question: What does socio-ecological resilience mean when baseline conditions are changing?

How can communities, natural-resource managers and policymakers identify a range of actions that can better promote social–ecological resilience to wildfire?

Examples from western communities demonstrate that applying different resilience goals can help communities better live with fire. The Montecito Fire Protection District in southern California has implemented a suite of policies and approaches to better prepare and mitigate the impacts of wildfire on the community and surrounding ecosystems. The Karuk Tribe of northern California has developed a comprehensive Climate Adaptation Plan which incorporates a Traditional Ecological Knowledge framework for promoting resilience to and increasing incidence of high-severity fire. An important component of adaptation in this plan is prescribed fire use. In northern California, the community-led Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association is implementing prescribed fires to restore habitat and protect communities from severe wildfires.

 

Ranchers in Humboldt County are using prescribed fire to improve coastal rangeland. Image credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

A common theme across these communities is the establishment of strong communication networks and trust among private landowners, federal, state and local agencies, and municipal governments and institutions. Many have a designated community wildfire coordinator that facilitates communication, education, outreach and fire planning and preparedness across the multiple organizations, agencies, institutions, and individuals that comprise a community. It is becoming increasingly clear that communities and individuals will need to invest time and energy to strategize how different approaches might best achieve resilience in their landscapes. In the final analysis, communities that are adapting and transforming do two things: they acknowledge that fire as an inevitable feature of their landscapes, and they understand that living with fire requires the support of the diverse institutions that make a community home.

Members of the Briceland Volunteer Fire Department. Kai Ostrow, far left, was recently hired as a southern Humboldt liaison for the PBA. Image credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

This interdisciplinary effort highlights that successful disaster response can reveal new ways to think about what it means to be resilient. More broadly, it illustrates how addressing grand challenges of the future require multi-disciplinary approaches, particularly those involving climate change and social wellbeing. Changing climate and the impacts on natural processes, including wildfire, demand that scientific endeavors become more expansive and inclusive. We need the best of all disciplines to come together to rethink how we understand and manage for resilient human and natural systems in the face of a changing world.

David McWethy

Assistant Professor, dmcwethy@montana.edu

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