Newswise — Mankind must learn to live with wildland fires by reintegrating fire as a vital landscape process and building communities that are resilient to fire, according to professor Mark Cochrane, a wildfire expert and senior scientist at the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence. In 2014, the federal government addressed the complexities of managing wildfires through the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. It emphasizes restoring fire-adapted landscapes and building communities that can coexist with wildland fires, thus reducing the firefighting burden. Cochrane is part of a team of scientists from Idaho, California, Utah, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Canada and Australia who examined the challenges that must be overcome to create fire-resilient communities in an article in the February issue of Bioscience magazine. They hope one day to build a federally funded center to develop and support community-based approaches for mitigating and adapting to wildland fires.

Losing wildfire battleWhen it comes to wildfires, the predominant mindset has been one of command and control, according to Cochrane. “During the last 70 years, fire suppression has been wildly successful. We’re better at detecting starts and putting out fires while they are small.”

However, he explained, “Now, we are a victim of our success. Ecologically, some places are designed to burn frequently.” Forests have gotten thicker, fueling increasingly larger wildfires. Despite the federal government spending on average $2.9 billion a year since 2000 to thin forests and fight fires, Cochrane pointed out, “We cannot keep up. Something has to change.” That means moving from the notion that fires are unnatural and toward a managed approach that integrates fire research with public policy, according to Cochrane. Building resiliency into landscapes, communities “Communities have to be part of the solution,” Cochrane said. With budgets tightening, people who live in fire-prone areas must decide where they want to put their resources. “If they go full fire suppression, taxes and other expenses will increase.”

However, there are simple ways to reduce the fire risk, such as clearing brush and dry grass, leaves and needles from around houses, he explained. In addition, building codes can be revised to require the use of less flammable construction materials, such as metal. “If you live in flammable countryside, you’ve got to work with fire. You can’t make it go away,” Cochrane said. Prescribed burns can help reduce the fire risk, but people must accept the possibility that “a certain number of them will get away and when you burn things, there is smoke.” Cochrane would also like to see insurance involved, similar to flood insurance. “If you build in a dangerous place, you’ll have to pay more,” he said. But, thus far, insurance companies haven’t experienced enough losses to justify this. “We need to get together to coherently plan what we’d like to create,” he said. Architects, builders and city planners must be part of the process of using more fire-resistant materials and designing homes and communities that are more resilient to fire.

However, Cochrane cautioned, ”there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different communities can decide to manage differently under the same conditions.”

In addition, he pointed out, “With changing climates and changing development, any solution or approach has to be adaptable over time because conditions are changing.”

About the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence The Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE) is a joint collaboration between South Dakota State University and the United States Geological Survey's National Center for Earth Resources Observation and Sciences (EROS). The purpose of the GSCE is to enable South Dakota State University faculty and students, and EROS scientists to carry out collaborative research, seek professional development, and implement educational programs in the applications of geographic information science.

About South Dakota State UniversityFounded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from eight different colleges representing more than 175 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 32 master’s degree programs, 15 Ph.D. and two professional programs. The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Cooperative Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.

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