Is it time to stop fighting wildfires?

"A different view of wildfire is urgently needed. We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. . . . There is no alternative," says Max Moritz. (Credit: Tim Vrieling/Flickr)

Experts say it’s time to change the way we think about natural fires if we want to avoid catastrophic losses in the future.

“We don’t try to ‘fight’ earthquakes: we anticipate them in the way we plan communities, build buildings and prepare for emergencies,” says Max Moritz, an associate at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and a cooperative extension specialist in fire at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.

“We don’t think that way about fire, but our review indicates that we should.

“Human losses will only be mitigated when land-use planning takes fire hazards into account in the same manner as other natural hazards such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.”

Moritz is lead author of a review published in the journal Nature.

How to coexist with fire

The review examines research findings from three continents and from both the natural and social sciences. Moritz and coauthors conclude that government-sponsored firefighting and land-use policies actually incentivize development on inherently hazardous landscapes, amplifying human losses over time.


The analysis examines different kinds of natural fires, what drives them in various ecosystems, the ways public response to fire can differ, and the critical interface zones between built developed communities and natural landscapes. The authors found infinite variations of how these factors can come together.

“It quickly became clear that generic one-size-fits-all solutions to wildfire problems do not exist,” Moritz says. “Fuel reduction may be a useful strategy for specific places like California’s dry conifer forests, but when we zoomed out and looked at fire-prone regions throughout the western United States, Australia, and the Mediterranean basin, we realized that over vast parts of the world, a much more nuanced strategy of planning for coexistence with fire is needed.”

The authors recommend a range of approaches for fire-prone areas and how to implement locally appropriate strategies and warning systems.

“Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems and can have a positive long-term influence on the landscape, despite people labeling them as disasters,” says co-author Dennis Odion, an associate project scientist at UC Santa Barbara’s Earth Research Institute.

“A different view of wildfire is urgently needed,” Moritz adds. “We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. . . . There is no alternative.

“The path we are on will lead to a deepening of our fire-related problems worldwide and will only become worse as the climate changes.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara