New research from Montana State University shows that with wildfires in the west becoming inevitable, communities that rethink what it means to live with them rather than simply rebuilding will fare better in the long run.

The paper, recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability, says that communities should consider how to adapt or even transform themselves to be more resilient to wildfires. They’re not going to stop happening—and in fact, with climate change they’ll probably get worse—so now is the time to begin planning that adaptation. It also provides examples of communities that have successfully done so.

“The key point of our paper is that current approaches to responding to wildfires are not working, especially as fire seasons are getting warmer and longer,” said lead research Dave McWethy, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Montana State. “In many fire-susceptible landscapes, rebuilding after wildfires leaves communities in a constant state of vulnerability.”

The paper is the result of a collaboration of ecologists and social scientists supported by a 2017 grant from the federal Joint Fire Science Program. That grant is focused on addressing the challenges communities and land managers face when responding to wildfires by identifying actions that will promote resilience in both humans and in nature.

“Efforts to promote resilience to wildfires are falling short because they are limited in scope and scale, insufficiently funded, hindered by agency constraints, and lack urgency and broad public support,” the paper’s authors write.

It’s clear that a new approach is needed, particularly since the 2017 fire season was the most expensive ever for the U.S. government, at $2.9 billion. Not only that, but California saw both its largest and most deadly fires in history in 2018.

Historically, fire was a critical feature that shaped the landscape of western North America. Efforts to control and stop wildfires are actually making communities more vulnerable to severe and destructive burns. The authors argue that the first step to learning to better live with wildfires and protect against them is by acknowledging the truth—fires are inevitable—and moving forward with a realistic program from there.

“It is important to remember that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for living with wildfire,” said co-author Alex Metcalf, a professor at the University of Montana. “In some places, it will make sense to continue defending structures and other human values. Elsewhere, fighting wildfire will be futile given warming patterns, so people must adapt. In other instances, people will have to entirely re-envision development patterns given the realities of wildfire.”

Photo: Shutterstock