Negative consequences of positive feedbacks in US wildfire management

TitleNegative consequences of positive feedbacks in US wildfire management
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsCalkin, DE
Secondary AuthorsThompson, MP
Tertiary AuthorsFinney, MA
JournalForest Ecosystems
Keywordstechnical reports and journal articles, wildland urban interface, WUI

Over the last two decades wildfire activity, damage, and management cost within the US have increased substantially. These increases have been associated with a number of factors including climate change and fuel accumulation due to a century of active fire suppression. The increased fire activity has occurred during a time of significant ex-urban development of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) along with increased demand on water resources originating on forested landscapes. These increased demands have put substantial pressure on federal agencies charged with wildfire management to continue and expand the century old policy of aggressive wildfire suppression. However, aggressive wildfire suppression is one of the major factors that drive the increased extent, intensity, and damage associated with the small number of large wildfires that are unable to be suppressed. In this paper we discuss the positive feedback loops that lead to demands for increasing suppression response while simultaneously increasing wildfire risk in the future. Despite a wealth of scientific research that demonstrates the limitations of the current management paradigm pressure to maintain the existing system are well entrenched and driven by the existing social systems that have evolved under our current management practice. Interestingly, US federal wildland fire policy provides considerable discretion for managers to pursue a range of management objectives; however, societal expectations and existing management incentive structures result in policy implementation that is straining the resilience of fire adapted ecosystems and the communities that reside in and adjacent to them.