New global wildfire analysis indicates humans need to coexist and adapt

Published: Nov. 5, 2014

A new study led by the University of California, Berkeley and involving the University of Colorado Boulder indicates the current response to wildfires around the world—aggressively fighting them—is not making society less vulnerable to such events.

The study suggests the key is to treat fires like other natural hazards—including earthquakes, severe storms and flooding—by learning to coexist, adapt and identify vulnerabilities. The new study indicates government-sponsored firefighting and land management policies may actually encourage development on inherently hazardous landscapes, leading to an amplification of human losses to wildfire.

“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 of 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.”

A paper on the subject appears in the Nov. 6 issue of Nature.

“We are in dire need of a more sustainable coexistence with wildfire,” said Research Scientist Tania Schoennagel of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, a study co-author.  “Unless we plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious social and ecological consequences.”

The study looked at research findings from three continents: North America, Australia and Europe. The scientists studied different kinds of natural fires, what drives them in various ecosystems, differing public responses and the critical wildland-urban interface. Additionally, the scientists analyzed fire data from the western U.S., the Mediterranean Basin and all of Australia.

“We have mostly approached wildfire management from the ecological side through fuel reduction,” Schoennagel said. “While this can be effective, it can only achieve so much. To more successfully coexist with wildfire we also need preventative tools, like residential land-use planning, zoning guidelines, fire-resistant building codes and fuel management on and around homes, for example.”

Although a September 2014 study involving Schoennagel found the perception that Colorado’s Front Range fires are becoming increasingly severe does not hold much water scientifically, the rapid expansion of the wildland-urban interface is helping to wreak unprecedented havoc on Colorado homes in the line of fire, she said.

The 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder County, for example, which burned 167 homes over 6,181 acres, topped the 2002 Hayman Fire—the largest Colorado wildfire on record at the time—which burned 133 homes over 138,144 acres in four counties. The 2012 High Park Fire in Larimer County then topped the Fourmile Canyon Fire by burning 259 homes over 87,284 acres. Keeping with the trend, the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in El Paso County burned 346 homes over 18,297 acres. It was followed by the 2013 Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, which burned 486 homes over 14,280 acres, and holds “the record for now,” said Schoennagel.

“We have learned that forest thinning is rarely effective under extreme burning conditions, and the severity of fire in adjacent forests has little to do with whether a home burns,” said Schoennagel, who also is affiliated with CU-Boulder’s geography department. “Solely relying on public forest management to prevent homes burning by wildfire is simply barking up the wrong tree. We need more integrated solutions that cross the public-private land boundary to help us coexist with inevitable wildfire.”

In addition to updated land-use and zoning regulations, the researchers recommend updating building codes, implementing vegetation management strategies and evaluating evacuation and warning systems. The team also recommends developing household and community plans for surviving “stay-and-defend” fire situations and developing better maps of fire hazards, ecosystems and climate change effects.

In the western U.S., there has been a 60 percent expansion in the wildland-urban interface since 1970, primarily in forests that have a history of moderate- to high-severity fires. Only 16 percent of the wildland-urban interface in the western U.S. currently is developed (20 percent in Colorado) but those numbers are rising, according to the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics, which is based in Bozeman, Montana.

Conducting carefully planned, prescribed burns can help manage the severity of wildfires in some ecosystems, said the study authors. Both prescribed burns and natural wildfires can stimulate vegetation regeneration, promote vegetation diversity, provide habitat for wildlife and sustain other natural ecosystem activities like nutrient cycling.

According to the authors, climate change will inevitably complicate management strategies. In Colorado, for example, where temperatures have climbed 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1977, a substantial increase in Front Range wildfire activity is expected, said Schoennagel. 

In addition to UC Berkeley and CU-Boulder, the Nature study included authors from the U.S. Forest Service, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis, Oregon, and four research institutes in Australia.

“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 Moritz, UC Berkeley, 510-642-7329
Tania Schoennagel, CU-Boulder, 303-818-5166
Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114

A new study indicates society might be better off treating wildfires like other natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.

“We are in dire need of a more sustainable coexistence with wildfire,” said Research Scientist Tania Schoennagel of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, a study co-author. “Unless we plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious social and ecological consequences.”