Addressing the ‘wicked’ wildfire problem

Researchers call for new partnerships between academia, government, industries

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An air tanker drops a load of retardant on a brush fire on Friday, July 17, 2015 between Spirit Lake and Athol. University of Idaho researchers are calling for a collaboration with academia, government agencies, industries and communities to address wildfires and find solutions to better prevent and manage the deadly and destructive fires.

New partnerships are desperately needed to tackle the "wicked problem" of wildfires, a team of University of Idaho researchers wrote in a report.

Alistair Smith, director of research and graduate studies at the UI's College of Natural Sciences, said academia, government, industries and communities must work together in the wildfire battle because the problem is so complex that a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist.

"We need to help communities understand how to coexist with wildfire," said Smith, the lead author in the report published on Tuesday in the BioScience journal. "We can’t fix this alone. We have to do this together."

Smith said most of the focus on wildfires has been on identifying the risks of fires.

"But that is just one part of the whole problem," Smith said. "We need new industries with innovative mitigation technologies or strategies to reduce the impact when fires occur. We have to have industries to take this challenge on."

Smith admits that mission won't be a small task.

"But that's where we need to go," he said.

U.S. wildfires burned more than 10.1 million acres in 2015 — a new record, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last month. Those fires destroyed 4,500 homes and structures and killed 13 firefighters.

Wildfire suppression costs the United States, on average, $2.9 billion a year. 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 said.

Smith said many wildfire observers believe 2015 was an indication of more catastrophes to come. Wildfire season struck home in Kootenai County last summer with the Cape Horn fire near Bayview.

"It was a wakeup call for many people," he said. "It's one thing to hear academics talk about it; it's another when your neighborhood is being impacted."

The UI research team began collaborating with international partners a year and a half ago on the report that published on Tuesday.

"Wildfires have to be a national priority that we can't ignore," Smith said.

Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service's National Interagency Fire Center, said the USFS believes partnerships are critical to addressing wildfire challenges. The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy seeks to address the challenges by ensuring safe, effective and efficient response to wildfires, restoring and maintaining landscapes and creating fire-adapted communities.

"For the past several years, the agency has been working with other federal, tribal, state and local government agencies throughout the U.S. to develop (the strategy)," Jones said. "The U.S. Forest Service welcomes the ideas, perspectives and participation of all those interested in helping to address the wildfire challenges."

Jones said the USFS strives to use the best-available science produced by agency researchers as well as researchers affiliated with other organizations in wildland fire management.

The researchers proposed five "Wildfire Grand Challenges" to help communities become more resilient to the effects of wildfire:

• Identify the most vulnerable "firescapes" such as landscapes, communities and economies

• 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, taking into account the complex connections among elements

• 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.

Alistair Smith

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