A NEW study led by the University of California-Berkeley and involving the University of Colorado-Boulder indicates that the current response to wildfires around the world — aggressively fighting them — is not making society less vulnerable to such events.
The findings suggest that 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 determined that government-sponsored firefighting and land management policies may actually encourage development on inherently hazardous landscapes, leading to an amplification of human loss 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 the University of California-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 appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of Nature.
"We are in dire need of a more sustainable coexistence with wildfire," said study co-author and research scientist Tania Schoennagel with the University of Colorado-Boulder's Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research. "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, they 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."
In the western U.S., there has been a 60% expansion in the wildland/urban interface since 1970, primarily in forests that have a history of moderate- to high-severity fires.
Although a September 2014 study involving Schoennagel found that the perception that fires in Colorado's Front Range are becoming increasingly severe does not hold much water scientifically, she said the rapid expansion of the wildland/urban interface is helping wreak unprecedented havoc on Colorado homes in the line of fire.
"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 the Boulder 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.
Conducting carefully planned, prescribed burns can help manage the severity of wildfires in some ecosystems, the study authors said. 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.
"A different view of wildfire is urgently needed," Moritz said. "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."