How Wildfires Led to Lessons Learned on Building Resilient Communities

From the early 1900s to the mid 1980s, wildfires were not a significant danger in the United States. The U.S. government had amassed data on the causes and behavior of wildfires, enabling the government to respond efficiently to major wildfire threats.

This all changed in 1988, when wildfires in Yellowstone National Park grew too quickly to contain and devastated the area. While many hoped that those fires were a one-year aberration, this was not to be. Since 1988, the amount of acreage destroyed by wildfires has increased significantly. So far in 2012, over 7 million acres have been destroyed in the western United States, making this year the most destructive year for wildfire damage in a century.

What has caused this alarming development? Will this trend continue into the future? If so, how can we as a country prepare more efficiently for wildfires?

These questions were addressed at the Up in Flames: the Causes and Aftermath of the 2012 Forest Fires event, hosted by the American Meteorological Society in Washington D.C. on November 30, 2012.Dr. Steven Running, from the University of Montana, and Dr. Elizabeth Reinhardt, from the U.S. Forestry Service, spoke about the causes and impacts of wildfires in the U.S. as well as potential ways we can ensure that wildfires do not become unmanageable.

Dr. Reinhardt pointed out that while we have seen more annual damage caused by wildfires in the last two decades, this is not because there have been more wildfires. Rather, increased damage is due to the fact that a larger percentage of fires grow into ‘major’ wildfires that affect a wider area and burn for a longer time.  Hence the goal of policy makers should not be to eliminate all wildfires (especially since they are ‘nature’s recycling system’) but to ensure that wildfires don’t become uncontrollable.

Dr. Running echoed this point, contending that a major source of increasingly dangerous fires has been a longer wildfire season. The wildfire season is now a month longer than it was in the 1970s, primarily because winters in the western United States are significantly warmer and shorter. This extended wildfire season makes it more likely that wildfires occur, and that when they do, they exact more damage and last longer.

Thus, both experts concluded that destructive wildfires are the ‘new normal’ for the western U.S., and vulnerable areas should implement strategies that take into account this increased risk. The offered two pragmatic steps governments, businesses, NGO groups, and communities in general should take to prepare for wildfires:

  1. Communities should reduce their proximity to major fuel areas for wildfires.
  2. Homes should be built taking into account dangers posed by wildfires and should incorporate materials that are resistant to fire damage.

The experts also noted that collaboration across agencies and sectors has already begun, with notable results like the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. This plan aims to find ways to restore and maintain resilient landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and efficiently respond to fires.

In the coming years and decades, the United States likely faces a more hostile environment, one that challenges our society’s ability to respond and recover from powerful fires, storms, and other natural disasters. To meet these difficult challenges we will need to collaborate across sectors to create strategies that promote resiliency.

BCLC is expediting this trend towards more resilient thinking through convening working meetings on regional resiliency challenges.

BCLC is expediting this trend towards more resilient thinking through convening working meetings on regional resiliency challenges. On September 24th, BCLC hosted 25 thought leaders from the private sector, public sector, and non-government sector to discuss what environmental challenges and what regions need to be examined through the lens of resilience. This meeting identified particular areas – such as the Gulf Coast, Desert Southwest, and Mid-West as priorities for future meeting as well as the general need to find new financing mechanisms to support regional resilience.

We will also be hosting a larger event in April 2013 to examine what the private sector’s role is in building more resilient and sustainable cities. If you are interested in joining our network as we plan this larger event and participating in other dialogues, please contact me at or (202) 463-5714.