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.

Where Should Society Invest in Wildfire Solutions?

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.

These realizations suggest a more difficult change than reduction of fuels on public lands is needed; we need to foster change in risk attitudes and behaviors by people in rural communities. To begin, we must ask “how we can create an environment that reduces the risk of loss of life and property damage when there are wildfires,” rather than “how do we eliminate wildfires.” Home hardening, which includes implementing modifications such as fire proof attic vents and fireproof exteriors (e.g., metal roofs, cement siding) is the first strategy. The second major strategy for reducing wildfire is to create defensible space by managing vegetation in communities and near homes so that small fires do not become destructive wildfires. With non-flammable building materials and adequate defensible space, most buildings are resilient to wildfire.

Creating social change may be slow, but we need to work toward that change. To encourage change we need to understand what drivers of change are in place, potentially available, or socially unappealing. For example, home hardening can be expensive, and maintaining defensible space may reduce the perceived value of the property to the landowners.

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