By Published: Sept. 11, 2016

The interaction of human development and forest management makes understanding fire risk a more complicated affair, researchers find

More than 20 years ago, Patrick Bourgeron, then working for the Nature Conservancy, realized that big was never big enough when it came to ecosystem management and wildfire mitigation, a shift in thinking that led to landscape- and regional-scale analysis.

“We were thinking largely in terms of watershed planning, but the best thinking was encouraging forest analysis and planning on larger spatial scales, from landscape to regional, with a longer time horizon,” said Bourgeron, now a researcher with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

“We simply were not getting the results we needed. Why weren’t we able to predict the next insect outbreak? Why weren’t we able to pinpoint the next forest fire?”

 Patrick Bourgeron

Patrick Bourgeron is working to factor in the human element in wildfire projections, an effort that treats wildfire risk as a kind of sickness. 

Today Bourgeron finds himself asking those same questions on the cutting edge of attempts to successfully model an increasingly complex system for mitigating wildfire danger — one that factors in the human element and treats wildfire risk as a kind of sickness. 

“Wildfire risk as a socioecological pathology” was published in a recent edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and included some 19 authors — all of them part of this cutting-edge movement, including Bourgeron, according to Paige Fischer, the lead author and an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment.

“These were some of the top researchers in the field” who were brought together by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collaborate on efforts to study these relationships, Fischer said. The paper essentially lays the groundwork for further studying and modeling of “coupled natural and human systems” in temperate forests across the United States, Australia and Greece.

What does forest management do to the frequency, size and intensity of wildfires? What happens when people think about the impact of their houses on forests and forest fires? Does it change the rate they build housing (and the type of materials they use) in the wildland urban interface?"

“We needed to put down what we have learned from the past six or seven years studying these coupled systems — you have natural systems responding to management and climate, and you have social systems responding to what people want to see,” Fischer said.

So how tricky can that be? Apparently, adding in sociological information vastly complicates the fire models most ecologists use.

“It is obvious, but the idea is deceiving because it’s so simple,” Bourgeron said.

“But then it becomes more interesting. What does forest management do to the frequency, size and intensity of wildfires? What happens when people think about the impact of their houses on forests and forest fires? Does it change the rate they build housing (and the type of materials they use) in the wildland urban interface? How does that change the propagation of fir (trees)? Then suddenly it becomes much more complex.”

Wildfire in Colorado Springs

With smoke and heat waves rising, a huge C-130 fire fighting aircraft drops red fire retardant near homes on the southern part of the 2013 Black Forest fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado's most destructive fire ever. 

In a totally natural system, rating fire danger can be fairly straightforward. As a forest ages, fuel loading increases and the overall danger is then amplified or diminished by recent climatic conditions, such as drought, Bourgeron said.

Human contributions to this equation tend not to be so linear. For instance, if fire suppression adds to the danger of a large fire, it becomes a positive feedback loop, because more human settlement requires more vigorous suppression. Adding more homes also increases the complexity in the natural system model, because treatment becomes less homogeneous across the landscape and the homes themselves add to the fuel loading.

Bourgeron, who is finishing a NSF-funded study on wildfire danger in the Colorado Front Range, said that it is only the beginning of the model complexity presented by introducing the human element. Different people look for different outcomes from their forest, which are sometimes based on what economists label “ecosystem services.”

Ecosystem services range from aesthetic dimensions, such as viewsheds, recreation, products, and, very importantly, often contribute to income and taxes. These affect the long-term goals of forest management, as well as greatly affect the chances of reaching consensus among stakeholders.

From a sociological perspective, there are also complexities involved in communications, and Bourgeron said Fischer’s network analysis added greatly to the NSF effort to update the state of coupled-systems efforts. While the authors noted that much of the progress in this area had come on the heels of the forest controversies in Washington and Oregon in the 1990s, some issues still have not been addressed.

In the article, Fischer noted that an analysis of communications among groups in Oregon that focus on forest restoration seem to be distinctly separated from those that focus on fire protection.

“This pattern suggests that interaction between actors from the two groups may be constrained,” she said. “Policy interventions could create new institutions to bring forest-restoration and fire-protection actors into more frequent and sustained interactions.”

Substantial programs forged by the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service address these situations, including practices widely employed in Colorado, such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and stewardship programs. These programs, at the least, set up networks in which stakeholders and both public and private landowners can work cooperatively to enact landscape-scale programs.

“We wouldn’t think about doing landscape-scale analysis without that networking in place,” Bourgeron said. However, he said the complexity inherent in these studies is only increasing, with climate change brought to the forefront.

“That was really the impetus for this meeting (of the coupled systems experts),” he said. The Forest Service and NRCS are “trying to drive climate change into these models.”

Jeff Thomas is Lafayette-based freelance writer and a 1983 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder.