UC Berkeley researchers publish paper on strategies to prevent, fight wildfires

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UC Berkeley researchers co-authored a paper arguing for a more nuanced approach to wildfire prevention and response that published Thursday.

The paper, co-authored with researchers from institutions in the United States and abroad, analyzes different strategies of dealing with wildfire around the world. The researchers argue that fuel reduction strategies — such as thinning the density of certain vegetation in order to reduce the amount of flammable material in fire sensitive areas — are not effective in most areas and that communities should develop their own methods.

Max Moritz, lead author of the paper who manages a lab at UC Berkeley, said fuel reduction is an effective way to reduce fire hazards but can only be applied to a small part of the landscape.

“There’s a really overly simplified perception of what the wildfire problem is,” Moritz said. “Having oversimplified perceptions of what the problem and solutions are, that hinders progress towards the real solutions we need to be pursuing and how they vary from place to place.”

Fires are a natural and often beneficial part of many ecosystems, so learning to coexist with fires would also have a long-term ecological benefit, according to the paper.

The researchers examined the ecology and current policies in fire-prone regions across the globe and determined that strategies should be developed based on the ecology of specific regions.

According to the paper, strategies for minimizing hazardous elements include establishing more stringent land-use policies to restrict development in fire-prone regions.

The development of more comprehensive maps of fire hazards, climate change and ecosystem services can help assess the relative benefits and dangers of development in a certain area.

Updating building codes to make structures more fire safe should also be a priority, the paper said. Building codes should require the retrofitting of existing fire-prone structures and regulate construction in order to minimize the potential for hazards to occur in the local area.

Sasha Berleman, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley’s Stephens Lab who researches fire and is unaffiliated with the study, agreed with the strategies outlined in the paper.

“I hear (firefighters) talking about how frustrating it is risking their lives to protect a structure that has absolutely no defensibility in the first place,” Berleman said. “Why is this considered okay to build houses made out of wood in the middle of the woods? The U.S. has not put the responsibility on the land owner.”

In the case of a wildfire, the paper suggests that regions have an area-specific evacuation plan and warning system, including when mandatory evacuations are effective. When people choose to stay and defend their property from the fire, household and community plans are important to have in place, the study says.

Contact Sonja Hutson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson.