Wildfire resilience with a flavour of economics

A new Policy Forum article in the journal Forest Policy and Economics highlights key insights on the socioeconomics of fire resilient landscapes from an EFI-organised high-level seminar in Madrid, October 2019.

forest fire
Photo: Pexels

A recipe in the making

When at home in your kitchen you meticulously follow the steps of a cooking recipe, it is important not to forget any quintessential ingredients — especially the spices that will ultimately make your dish appetising. How to better manage forests and landscapes for wildfire resilience is one of the most important ‘dishes’ we currently need to prepare, as climate change, demographic trends and forest transition are exposing our societies to ever more extreme wildfire events, triggering devastating human, material and ecosystem damages. But, arguably, the recipe for wildfire-resilient landscapes has not been written yet: some things we definitely believe should be in that ratatouille – or conversely, should definitely not, such as the excessive reliance on fire suppression that currently persists globally. In what proportions different components should enter is much less certain – nor in what sequence: what ‘meat’ should form the basis, and should it be precooked before adding the veggies?

This article is about one ingredient that is often neglected in the recipe of landscape resilience: the economic dimension. Combined with the social, stakeholder-oriented dimension into the sphere of socioeconomics, it is like the salt in the soup: forgetting it would seriously impair palatability. Without an adequate consideration of who benefits, who loses, how much, and who owns the risks, it is hard to design wildfire resilience strategies that will be sufficiently attractive for adoption at-scale. Often, the implicit underlying assumption that ‘we are all in the same boat’ proves to be dubious: for all stakeholders to adequately take into account the forest disservices of wildfire risks, some combination of sticks, carrots, and altered rules of the game may need to be applied.       

The article, “Resilient landscapes to prevent catastrophic forest fires: Socioeconomic insights towards a new paradigm”, reviews global experiences on these topics, and draws on major ideas explored in an international seminar held by the European Forest Institute (EFI) in Madrid in October 2019, hosted by the Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MITECO). The article is written by the event’s moderators at EFI, Sven Wunder, Inazio Martínez de Arano, and Sarah Feder, as well as its keynote speakers, Dave E. Calkin, Val Charlton, Peter Moore, Francisco Rodríguez y Silva, Luca Tacconi, and Cristina Vega-García. It also draws on wildfire-related work EFI has implemented jointly with the Diputació de Barcelona (DIBA). The article forms part of a forthcoming Special Issue of Forest Policy and Economics on the economics of wildfires.

Recent extreme fire disasters reinforce the economic limits of reactive fire suppression-centered strategies, which carry exorbitant costs and questionable long-term effectiveness, contributing to the “wildfire suppression paradox”: the more immediate success, the higher the fuel build-up for future fire fodder. Many practitioners and policymakers thus recognise the need to develop more proactive, people–centered and integrated wildfire management along the entire risk management cycle of prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The widespread intuition is that there must be a better way to build more fire-resilient landscapes, yet this new exploratory pathway is still in the making.

What policies: direct or indirect approaches?

Bringing together leading scientists, practitioners, and policymakers in Madrid, from Spain and around the world, also offered a strategic opportunity to jointly think about prototypes of policy solutions. The authors thus review global experiences to further contemplate such strategies. They reconsider the root causes of extreme fires, placing them in the context of a “wicked problem” with dynamic and diverse contexts and influencing factors — and without a single, clear solution. Consequently, they elaborate on the pros and cons of multiple approaches, reflecting on the complementarities and tradeoffs of direct vs. indirect approaches, using the example of the Mediterranean region.

Essentially, the key policy question is: are we trying, first and foremost, to directly achieve landscape changes for preventing catastrophic fires (e.g. by managing forests, fuelscapes and firebreaks in a spatially targeted way) hoping it will, as a side effect, also raise rural landholder incomes and welfare? Or are we, conversely, trying to primarily reinvigorate rural economies, incomes, and settlements in a broader sense — hoping it will also indirectly help to keep landscapes open and fuel loads down? Both strategies can be complementary to some extent, but each also faces critical drawbacks. Fighting powerful long-term forest transition processes of rural exodus may often become a Sisyphean challenge. Conversely, targeted direct strategies may offer better prospects of cost effectiveness, but lack consolidation. Probably both approaches, meat and vegetables, are needed in some customised proportion: policymakers and practitioners must assess the cost-benefit gaps of wildfire risks to identify the most critical pathways to prevention and resilience, across scales and sectors.

Towards a realistic role for wildfire economics

Mapping the distribution of wildfire- and response-related costs and benefits is a key first step towards resilient solutions. While economic instruments are generally no panacea, economists and other social scientists can help to identify respective designs of incentives and disincentives, to promote (individual or collective) behavioural change. The established field of ecosystem services can here provide valuable policy lessons for wildfires, which are in effect an environmental disservice with potentially high social costs.

This paper urges that socioeconomic considerations must be a centrepiece in research, policy and action about fire-resilient landscapes: we want people to organise and behave differently on the ground, yet human organisation and behaviour are strongly linked to socioeconomic options. These needs will have to inform the actions, both direct and indirect, required for implementing a new paradigm of wildfire resilience. To date, no blueprints for fire-resilient landscapes exist. For the adaptive learning that is needed to move this promising concept forward, we must employ a multitude of experimental approaches at different scales. Only in this way will we be able to address a “wicked problem” with an equally dynamic mix of solutions. Policymakers should thus also generally encourage diverse, tentative, and adaptive solutions, embracing targeted direct approaches while also working towards indirect approaches like the bioeconomy for rural development, rather than searching for a singular and impossible one-size-fits-all model.

Read the full article here.


Wunder, S., Calkin, D. E., Charlton, V., Feder, S., Martínez de Arano, I., Moore, P., Rodríguez y Silva, F., Tacconi, L., Vega-García, C. (2021). Resilient landscapes to prevent catastrophic forest fires: Socioeconomic insights towards a new paradigm. Forest Policy and Economics, 128, 102458. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2021.102458

SOURCEWith inputs from Sarah Feder
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Sven Wunder
Dr Sven Wunder works as Principal Scientist for EFI’s Mediterranean Facility (EFIMED). He leads EFI’s research activities on Payments for Environmental Services (PES) and other incentives and new business models for enhancing the provision of ecosystem services. Dr Wunder’s previous work has focused precisely on PES, but also on deforestation and poverty. His interests include the broader fields of natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, livelihoods, as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation. He has worked for CIFOR, IUCN, the Center for Development Research (Denmark) and Danida, in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Indonesia. He received his PhD in Economics from the University of Copenhagen in 1992 and a DSc in Forestry from the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Copenhagen in 2001.