Report: "wicked" wildfires should be a priority

Posted at 10:48 AM, Feb 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-02 12:48:02-05

The United States must make preparing for wildfires a top national priority, says a team of University of Idaho researchers and their international partners in a paper published Tuesday in the journal BioScience.

The researchers issued a call for academia, government agencies, industries, and communities to work together to address wildfires -- because it is a “wicked problem,” they say; one so complex that a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist.

“We need to help communities understand how to coexist with wildfire,” said lead author Alistar Smith, fire ecology and management program lead and director of research and graduate studies for the UI College of Natural Resources. “The partnerships have to cover agencies and universities and industries. We can’t fix this alone. We have to do this together.”

U.S. wildfires burned more than 10.1 million acres in 2015 — a new record, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The fires destroyed 4,500 homes and structures and killed thirteen firefighters.

Wildfire suppression costs the United States, on average, $2.9 billion a year, according to experts. The cascading consequences -- such as health problems from poor air quality, post-fire landslides or loss of tourism -- add up to staggering additional costs, Smith pointed out.

The researchers’ paper outlines the wildfire problem and suggests strategies for mitigating and adapting to it, including investments in research and technology.

The authors proposed five Wildfire Grand Challenges to understand the risks of fire and to help communities become more resilient to its effects.

They said officials should:

  • Identify the most vulnerable firescapes -- a term encompassing landscapes, communities, economies and fire.
  • Identify cascading fire consequences by expanding research into the indirect impacts of fire and how communities can plan for and adapt to them.
  • Identify early warning signals that indicate when a firescape could face devastating changes to its ecology or economy if a fire occurs.
  • Create a centralized system that will help researchers and managers in different places share information.
  • Address barriers to achieving firescape resilience, especially by recognizing that all stakeholders must work together.

The UI team’s work links to a nationwide push for a new approach to fire management, which includes the National Science and Technology Council’s “Wildland Fire Science and Technology Task Force Report,” released last November.

The paper reaches beyond the United States, with perspectives from researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as those who have studied fire around the world. “The concepts we put in here are highly relevant for the U.S., but they can also be translated globally,” Smith said.

“Communities in the western U.S. and around the world will always face wildfire, but the University of Idaho is leading the way in understanding and reducing the threats to ecosystems, economies and, most importantly, human lives,” said Jack McIver, vice president for research and economic development at UI.

UI College of Natural Resources Dean Kurt Pregitzer added, “This team provides an important, fresh and global perspective on how to deal with a wicked problem.”