Facing forest fires: 10 articles to deepen your knowledge on the social and economic dimensions of wildfires

In preparation for our upcoming #FacingForestFires event in Madrid, EFIMED Junior Researcher Sarah Feder presents part one of a curated list of academic articles focussing on the social and economic components of fire risk and prevention, many written by featured speakers who will participate in the conference.

Photo: Steve Buissinne - ShutterStock

There is no shortage of literature on forest fires. A simple search in Scopus yields well over 29,000 results – and steadily rising. Not to mention the many thousands of news articles, opinion pieces, and blog posts that flood the internet, especially in a time facing increasingly frequent extreme fire events.

With such an inundation of data, it can be difficult to parse the information and articles that can most readily inform the urgent need for global policy and actions to address the growing risk of megafire events. The vast majority of the existing articles – both scientific and otherwise – focus on suppression activities that are carried out after a blaze has already taken hold. Suppression approaches to fire management have dominated the past century, with most national fire policies in fire-prone regions like the Western United States, Mediterranean Europe, and Australia oriented towards zero-fire tolerance and massive investments in firefighting infrastructure. Today, suppression-only policies are largely understood to exacerbate the risk of uncontrollable fire in fire-prone ecosystems by leading to a build-up of highly flammable underbrush that ignites and spreads rapidly like, well… wildfire.

However, due to changing weather patterns – primarily, hotter, drier, and windier weather – magnified by the climate crisis, the occurrence of extreme fire events has left many governments spending heavily on suppression to limit the danger and damage of unexpected events, at the expense of investments in prevention and resilience. A smaller, but vibrant body of research exists about the socioeconomic drivers of, and potential solutions to, this forest fire paradox, and how prevention can take the form of actions to strengthen fire resilience on a landscape level.

Our upcoming conference, “Resilient landscapes to face catastrophic forest fires: global insights towards a new paradigm” seeks to elevate this body of research, and the experts and practitioners who are leading the push for policies that better consider landscape-based prevention and resilience actions.

In preparation for this event, and to help our readers wade through the Scopus Sea of forest fire research, we have selected ten pieces of academic literature to highlight in a series of two articles. Our curated list, which features research from many of the featured speakers who will participate in our conference in Madrid, focuses on the social and economic components of fire risk and prevention, pairing pieces from different disciplines and research styles that together paint a picture of how the convergence of science, policy, and action can construct fire-resilient landscapes in the context of climate change. Each article in the series will present five of these pieces of literature.

1. Rethinking the wildland fire management system

Thompson, Matthew P.; MacGregor, Donald G.; Dunn, Christopher J.; Calkin, David E.; Phipps, John. 2018. Rethinking the wildland fire management system. Journal of Forestry. 116(4): 382-390.

In the western United States and elsewhere, the need to change society’s relationship with wildfire is well-recognised. Suppressing fewer fires in fire-prone systems is promoted to escape existing feedback loops that lead to ever worsening conditions and increasing risks to responders and communities. The primary focus of this paper is how to catalyse changes in fire manager behavior such that responses are safer, more effective, and capitalise on opportunities for expanded use of fire. The research uncovers deep-seated, systemic drivers of behavior, and in so doing, challenges ingrained ways of thinking and acting that may be inconsistent with current intentions around wildland fire management.

The authors pose the questions of whether all fires are emergencies that require rapid deployment and concentration of suppression resources, whether rhetoric and actions align with policy and guidance, and whether scientists can unambiguously define and measure what a safe and effective response looks like. Using the Forest Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a relevant test case for systemic investigation, the authors argue that fundamental changes in how the fire management community thinks about, learns from, plans for, and responds to wildland fires may be necessary. This paper contributes to a broader dialogue around the current and future state of wildland fire management.

2. A global assessment of megafires

Williams, Jerry; Albright, Dorothy; Hoffman, Anja A.; Eritsov, Andrey; Moore, Peter F.; Mendes De Morais, Jose C.; Leonard, Michael; San Miguel-Ayanz, Jesus; Xanthopoulos, G; Lierop, Pietervan.  2011. Findings and Implications from a Coarse-Scale Global Assessment of Recent Selected Mega-Fires. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

In a paper commissioned by the FAO, this study is intended to identify the underlying factors for megafires in order to better understand the conditions under which they are initiated and exacerbated, and thus how they could potentially be managed. Through an expansive case study of eight global mega-fire events, the paper attempts to map the direct and indirect causes of these phenomena. In the face of global climate change, urbanisation, and increased vulnerability of certain ecosystems, the paper advocates for holistic natural resource management strategies that better address and incorporate fire resilience on a landscape scale. Specifically, this paper emphasises the need for prevention-focused fire policies, highlighting the inefficiency and high cost of traditional suppression activities against the threat of mega-fires.

Photo: rescEU – European Commission

3. Framework for a comprehensive wildfire management strategy

Alcasena, Fermín; Ager, Alan A.; Bailey, John D,; Pineda, Nicolau; Vega-García, Cristina. 2018. Towards a comprehensive wildfire management strategy for Mediterranean areas: Framework development and implementation in Catalonia, Spain. Journal of environmental Management 231(1): 303-320.

Southern European countries rely largely on fire suppression and ignition prevention to manage a growing wildfire problem. This paper explores a more holistic, long-term approach based on priority maps for the implementation of diverse management options aimed at creating fire resilient landscapes, restoring cultural fire regimes, facilitating safe and efficient fire response, and creating fire-adapted communities. To illustrate this new comprehensive strategy for fire-prone Mediterranean areas, the authors developed and implemented their proposed framework in Catalonia (northeastern Spain).

Using advanced simulation modeling methods to assess various indicators that can help predict wildfire occurrence and risk, the authors also incorporated socioeconomic indicators such as land use, as well as historical fire data in order to understand and map fuel and fire management options and priorities at the municipal level. With a focus on the wildland urban interface, the risks and opportunities of human land use, and an understanding of the “fire regime” in densely populated areas, the results of this study can facilitate collaborative landscape planning and identify the constraints that prevent a longer term and more effective solution to better coexist with fire in southern European regions.

4. Understanding fires in tropical forests

Tacconi, Luca; Moore, Peter F.; Kaimowitz, David. 2006. Fires in Tropical Forests – What is Really the Problem? Lessons from Indonesia. Mitigation and adaptation strategies for global change 12(1): 55-66.

Concern about wildfires has been particularly evident in tropical forests of Southeast Asia and the Amazon since the early 1980s, but disastrous fires in recent summers in Australia, Europe, and the United States have drawn worldwide attention. Concern about forest fires, and related air pollution and biodiversity impacts, have led international organisations and northern countries to undertake fire assessments, provide technical assistance, and invest money in fire prevention. Yet, despite the money and effort spent on them, fires continue to burn every year. It may appear to some that efforts to address the ‘fire problem’ have not been effective as fires still occur. There remains a lack of clarity about ‘fire problems’, which has, at times, led to the adoption of policies that may have negative impacts on livelihoods, the environment, and the economy.

Two ‘simple’ changes in the way fires are considered would significantly improve fire-related policies and initiatives. First, fires should be seen as a component of land management processes, rather than as a ‘problem’ to be prevented, suppressed, or mitigated. And second, not all fires are the same. In this paper, these two points are discussed in the context of Southeast Asia, and particularly Indonesia, as an example of the problems and questions faced by tropical countries. The authors argue that efforts on fires so far have generated increased knowledge of the ’fire problem’; now, international policymakers need to capitalise on that knowledge to ensure more effective investments in future fire prevention efforts.

5. Fire management through prescribed burning

Fernandes, Paulo M.; Davies, G. Matt; Ascoli, Davide; Fernández, Cristina; Moreira, Francisco; Rigolot, Eric; Stoof, Cathelijne R.; Vega, José Antonio; Molina, Domingo. 2013. Prescribed burning in southern Europe: developing fire management in a dynamic landscape. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11(1): 4-14.

Mediterranean landscapes are in a state of flux due to the impacts of changing land‐use patterns and climate. Fuel–weather interactions determine that large, severe wildfires are increasingly common. Prescribed burning in southern Europe is therefore justified by the need to manage fire‐prone vegetation types and maintain cultural landscapes that provide a range of ecosystem services. This paper explains that prescribed fire has neutral or positive effects on soils and biodiversity, in contrast to wildfires, which can be extremely damaging. However, the authors find that the limited extent of current applications are unlikely to reduce wildfire hazard or carbon emissions.

Adoption of prescribed burning in the Mediterranean region has been slow, uneven, and inconsistent, and its development is constrained by cultural and socioeconomic factors as well as by specific factors related to demography, land use, and landscape structure. The authors argue that sustainable fire management requires an expansion of managers’ ability to use prescribed burning, a varied response to unplanned fires, and modified regulation of burning associated with traditional agricultural land uses.

Watch out for the next five articles which will complete the list – coming soon!

Learn more by exploring the wildfires tag on MedForest, or prepare for our upcoming #FacingForestFires event by reading the biographies of these speakers and more on the EFI website. Follow along as the leading experts on the socioeconomic dimensions of forest fires discuss how we can move toward fire resilient landscapes around the world by watching the #FacingForestFires livestream.

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Sarah Feder
Sarah Feder, based at EFI's Mediterranean Facility, has a particular focus on the socioeconomic dimensions of wildfires in Mediterranean forests. Sarah is also a member of the EFIMED Communications team, contributing articles to this platform and the EFI website. She has a Master of Science in Human Geography from Lund University in Sweden.