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Wildfire risk science facilitates adaptation of fire-prone social-ecological systems to the new fire reality

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Large and severe wildfires are an observable consequence of an increasingly arid American West. There is increasing consensus that human communities, land managers, and fire managers need to adapt and learn to live with wildfires. However, a myriad of human and ecological factors constrain adaptation, and existing science-based management strategies are not sufficient to address fire as both a problem and solution. To that end, we present a novel risk-science approach that aligns wildfire response decisions, mitigation opportunities, and land management objectives by consciously integrating social, ecological and fire management system needs. We use fire-prone landscapes of the US Pacific Northwest as our study area, and report on and describe how three complementary risk-based analytic tools—quantitative wildfire risk assessment, mapping of suppression difficulty, and atlases of potential control locations—can form the foundation for adaptive governance in fire management. Together, these tools integrate wildfire risk with fire management difficulties and opportunities, providing a more complete picture of the wildfire risk management challenge. Leveraging recent and ongoing experience integrating local experiential knowledge with these tools, we provide examples and discuss how these geospatial datasets create a risk-based planning structure that spans multiple spatial scales and uses. These uses include pre-planning strategic wildfire response, implementing safe wildfire response balancing risk with likelihood of success, and alignment of non-wildfire mitigation opportunities to support wildfire risk management more directly. We explicitly focus on multi-jurisdictional landscapes to demonstrate how these tools highlight the shared responsibility of wildfire risk mitigation. By integrating quantitative risk science, expert judgement and adaptive co-management, this process provides a much-needed pathway to transform fire-prone social ecological systems to be more responsive and adaptable to change and live with fire in an increasingly arid American West.
C.J. Dunn
Dunn CJ. Wildfire risk science facilitates adaptation of fire-prone social-ecological systems to the new fire reality O'Connor CD. Environmental Research Letters [Internet]. 2020 ;15(2). Available from:
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