Rebuilding after wildfire is not enough to curb future disasters
Wildfires in the West are becoming inevitable, and communities that rethink what it means to live with them will likely fare better than those that simply rebuild after they burn. This is the conclusion of a recently published paper authored by a group of scientists from institutions across the U.S. and Canada.
"Under climate change, it is not enough to just rebuild after wildfires. Simply rebuilding will only lead to repeat disaster," said Crystal Kolden with the University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources, one of the authors on the paper. "Instead, communities must seek to adapt and ultimately transform themselves to become resilient to the wildfires of tomorrow."
The paper, published Monday, Aug. 19, in the journal Nature Sustainability, argues communities should consider how to adapt and, in some cases, transform themselves to be more resilient to the inevitability of wildfires in the future and provides examples of communities that have successfully done so in recent years.
"The key point of our paper is that current approaches to responding to wildfire are not working, especially as fire seasons are getting warmer and longer," said Dave McWethy, an assistant professor at Montana State University and lead author on the paper. "In many fire-susceptible landscapes, rebuilding after wildfire leaves communities in a constant state of vulnerability."
The paper is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration of ecologists and social scientists supported by a 2017 grant from the federal Joint Fire Science Program. The $290,000 grant is focused on addressing the challenges communities and land managers face when responding to wildfire by identifying actions that promote resilience in both human and natural systems.
"Efforts to promote resilience to wildfire are falling short because they are limited in scope and scale, insufficiently funded, hindered by agency constraints, and lack urgency and broad public support," the authors state in the paper.
They cite recent, destructive fire seasons as reasons why a new approach is needed: The 2017 fire season was the most expensive ever for the U.S. government at $2.9 billion and California saw both its largest and most deadly fires in history in 2018.
The authors argue learning to better live with and protect against wildfires starts with acknowledging that fire is inevitable in Western North American landscapes. Fire was historically a critical feature that shaped those landscapes, and efforts to control and stop them are making communities more vulnerable to severe and destructive burns, especially in a changing climate, the researchers write.
The paper uses Montecito, California, as one of its examples. After a series of severe fires in the 1990s, the Montecito Fire Protection District took steps toward what the paper calls "adaptive resilience." This included creating defensible space around homes (a space without woody fuels), "hardening" homes by using fire-resistant building materials, reducing fuels across the larger landscape through prescribed fire and other treatments, and implementing detailed fire planning and response outreach programs. The authors argue those practices paid off more than four decades later, reducing the damage caused to homes in Montecito by the Thomas Fire in 2017.
Similar practices could be tailored to fit varying ecosystems and communities, making adaptive and transformative resilience more widespread, the researchers said.