UO researcher offers roadmap for fixing wildfire management

As wildfire managers face increasing challenges brought about by climate change and increasing development in the wildland-urban interface, the most effective measures will be those that take a more collaborative approach to embracing and navigating the growing complexities.

That’s the message from two experts — including the University of Oregon’s Cassandra Moseley — who argue, in a Policy Forum article published in the Oct. 4 issue of the journal Science, that improved fire management will require attention to governance at multiple levels.

In the paper, "Collaborations and Capacities to Transform Fire Management,” Moseley and Courtney A. Schultz of Colorado State University take a 38,000-foot view of the lessons being learned from emerging fire management practices in the U.S. West.

They examine how widely agreed upon scientific recommendations of fire management are being carried out, look at some of the ways those recommendations are failing in practice, point to some examples of successful programs that are in existence and provide a framework for a new model of collective action to address the global challenge of living with wildfire.

"How do we design governance and policy approaches to get us to where we need to go?" asked Schultz, a professor of forest and natural resource policy in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and director of the university’s Public Lands Policy Group. "Successfully transforming fire management requires people working together across jurisdictions and a commitment to long-term goals."

Fire management, Moseley and Schultz wrote, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition because landscapes and legal authorities vary from place to place.

“We see organizing human resource capacity, interagency agreements and preseason planning as critical to ensuring that all of the necessary staff and equipment can be on the ground at key times of the year to conduct prescribed fires and reduce fire hazard,” Moseley said. “Sometimes conditions for a prescribed burn in one place may be good, but you may have firefighters off in another area battling a fire or doing other work.”

There are models to follow, Moseley and Schultz noted, including:

  • The Rio Grande Water Fund in northern New Mexico, which was originally launched by The Nature Conservancy. It brings together new funding sources and diverse partners to reduce fire hazards and protect water supplies. In Colorado, land managers at the San Juan National Forest have conducted large prescribed burns over the last several years, thanks to leadership commitment and collaboration with partners like the conservancy, Chama Peak Land Alliance and the Mountain Studies Institute.
  • Funding from the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program has brought together Forest Service personnel, environmental groups, community leaders, tribes and industry to plan and implement forest restoration work across large landscapes.
  • The state of California has created Fire MOU Partnership with federal agency and nongovernmental partners. Under their memorandum of understanding, the partners are advancing the use of prescribed fire by focusing on increased communication and collaborative problem-solving.

Moseley and Schultz recommend actions that federal and state agencies and Congress can take to advance these types of collaborations, including adding funding for forest restoration, reorganizing agency staffing and considering how to increase focus on strategic fuels treatments.

"There's research in the social and political sciences to inform how we think about these issues, and there's also a recognition that fire, like other climate-driven disturbances, has become a tremendous challenge in the U.S. and around the world,” Schultz said. “This will be a critical area for governance research going forward."

Their work was supported by the Joint Fire Science Program, a program of the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service and governed by a board made up of members from seven federal agencies.

By Jim Barlow, University Communications