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Adapting Toward Resilience

posted Mar 2, 2016, 3:54 PM by Joe Christy

We are surrounded by wonderfully fire-resilient ecosystems. From the fuzzy green “pipecleaner” redwoods which lost all their branches and needles in the Lockheed Fire, to the beautiful succession of ferns & wildflowers, lupins, and soft & hard chaparral brought forth in the Ecological Reserve by the Martin Fire, we can see how our mountain has adapted to the periodic wildfires that have been a constant here for millennia.

The most significant change in this firescape has been the addition of our human community to the forest. First the mountain was clear cut in the early 20th century, then fire was rigorously suppressed for a century, leading to a situation where fuel loads make further intense wildfires inevitable. As the costs of fire suppression grow dramatically, it is clear that we cannot simply fight fire; mother nature always wins. Our human community must adapt to wildfire and develop a resiliency comparable to our ecology.

In the past month I read two stimulating surveys, A World on Fire, outlining the challenges ahead, and The Science of Firescapes, sketching a way forward toward fire-adapted, resilient human communities.

A World on Fire considers three future scenarios: decline/collapse, business as usual, and transformation. In the first, our economy stagnates as our government grows ever more dysfunctional, the social fabric frays and ecosystems collapse. In the second, moderate economic growth returns, political polarization diminishes, but we continue along the same path as before so catastrophic wildfires grow in number and intensity worldwide. In the third, we successfully refocus our technology toward sustainability and reducing our adverse impact on the natural world that sustains us. To do so, we must learn to exist as part of nature rather than trying to dominate it.

The Science of Firescapes outlines four milestones towards the superior third scenario in A World on Fire: Risk, Adaptation, Mitigation, and Resilience. We must reconsider wildfire risk not simply as a bio-physical problem, but integrate the social and economic aspects in our assessment. We must adapt our strategies for coping with wildfire to accept the inevitability and biological necessity of fire. We must mitigate the risks of catastrophic fire by reintroducing low intensity fire, returning fire to its role as a tool in land management, and securing our human values within the restored firescape. Only then can our human community approach the resilience to fire that we see growing around us.