The western United States is beginning to come to grips with the potential magnitude of the wildfire crisis. Increases in forest wildfire size, severity, and elevation have been linked to a 30-year pattern of increasing fuels in coniferous forests. Wildfire management is made even more challenging by changes in climate that have extended the fire season and increased the frequency of days that promote extreme wildfire (i.e., hot late dry season days with strong winds).

Recent media coverage of several large and deadly fires, alongside the federal and state wildlands management response, have focused public concern toward wildfire risks on public lands, and in particular coniferous forested lands. The US Forest Service, for example, has been frequently maligned for not better managing forest fuels on their mostly forested land. California has developed a Wildfire and Forest Resilience Plan that invests heavily in forest management in an effort to reduce fuels in coniferous forests.

Clearly there is broad consensus that society should manage wildlands to avoid severe wildfire impacts. But how else should a society invest in risk reduction? What are the primary drivers of risk? Where are the dominant impacts we are trying to avoid? What are our primary objectives in managing wildfire? How do we create social change to meet those objectives? These are serious questions that we often get wrong because of our laser focus on public lands forests.

Wildland fire risk management has focused on fuels reduction on public lands by thinning and removing fuels from dense coniferous forests. The ecological justification is that reduced timber harvest and fire suppression has led these forests to be “overdense” relative to their historic state, creating the capacity for severe wildfire. The benefit is that reducing fuels does reduce the risk of extreme wildfire. This, in turn, reduces the risk of hazardous smoke exposure for Californians.

Solutions to the western wildfire “problem” begin by closing two key gaps in general social understanding. First and foremost, fires are a natural component of the ecosystem. Ecologically, we should be advocating for more wildfire acreage, albeit at lower burn severity. However, even if we were to find the magic sweet spot of wildfire use and suppression, we will fail to prevent occasional large fires.

Second, those who are most at risk need to better understand that they, collectively, are the generators of risk to each other and to public lands. This is in sharp contrast to the currently widespread public opinion that rural communities are the victims of wildfire problems generated on public lands.

Finally, information and incentives are not likely to be sufficient. Using policy levers that create penalties for non-compliance must be part of the solution. Arson is a crime; letting a campfire get away is criminal negligence. The utility company PG&E may be on the hook for over $25 billion dollars because of mistakes on their property that led to lives lost. However, we do not penalize landowners if a fire enters their property and, because of failure to comply with fire-safe practices, the fire accelerates and causes damage to other properties. If private property owners were culpable for damage to adjoining properties, we may see very different rates of home hardening and defensible space adoption. We carry high expectations of public landowners and public utilities. We should expect more of private landowners as well.

Read the full article about wildfire crisis by Mark W. Schwartz at Stanford Social Innovation Review.