Bridging the Gap Between Fire Policy and Community
While ranchers in southeast Idaho are trading cowboy hats for fire helmets, vacation homeowners in the northern part of the state are addressing wildfire through building regulations.
This community reaction to living with wildfire — a certainty and necessity of Idaho’s landscape — is the focus of social science fire research at the University of Idaho.
Travis Paveglio, assistant professor in the UI College of Natural Resources, is leading the social science side of fire research and partnering with other researchers at UI and Washington State University who are looking at the impacts of wildfire from a biophysical viewpoint. Paveglio’s research connects humans and their environments to better understand how wildfire planning and mitigations might be designed differently for local populations. The goal is to design policies that promote a range of solutions residents can help develop, adopt and support given their unique local circumstances.
“The national goal is to have fire-adapted communities,” Paveglio said. “But first we have to understand what fire means to different communities.”
The creation of rangeland fire protection associations in the southern part of Idaho is one result. The ranchers, whose livelihoods rely on the land, are willing to mobilize in response to fires.
But owners of vacation homes intermingled with forests around Sandpoint, in the northern part of the state, are often more accepting of planning regulations as a way to mitigate fire potential and protect land values and recreational resources.
“The concerns are just as valid, they are just different,” Paveglio said. “It isn’t going to be the same for everyone. People have different needs and different priorities.”
Paveglio has studied the social implications of wildfire for years. Now, through ongoing collaborations, he is able to get into more communities and better understand the ways local needs translate to different strategies for wildfire management. His work is part of a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant led by Crystal Kolden, assistant professor of geography in UI’s College of Science. He also has grants from the U.S. Forest Service, tied to the National Fire Plan.
Paveglio’s latest partnership is with Dennis Becker, director of the UI Policy Analysis Group. Becker conducts policy analysis and provides communities and agencies with solutions that consider local dynamics for wildfire planning or response.
“Being the conduit to provide agencies with usable policy that fits the expectations of landowners is a benefit to all the citizens of Idaho,” Becker said. “Both agencies and individuals have good intentions, I just help bridge the gap in strategy.”
Paveglio’s projects build on past research surrounding wildfire recovery and planning, including a study of long-term recovery from the 2006 Columbia Complex Fire, which burned nearly 110,000 acres and 28 structures in southeastern Washington. Local reaction to state and federal fire response during that event led to a change in state law allowing select Washington landowners to cross roadblocks to access their property.
“There is a lot of research into wildfire impact, wildfire as part of ecosystems, and rightly so,” Paveglio said. “But we can’t ignore the human elements, the social elements. It isn’t all about landscapes. People live in these landscapes and their relationships with the land continue to influence wildfire dynamics.”
Problems can arise when landowners want to provide personal equipment, assistance or other resources when wildfires strike on or near their property or community. However, suppression contracts for dealing with fires may be established before the incident management team shows up, giving local landowners more rights. Incident management teams may be unable, contractually, to allow the uncontracted local equipment on the fires, often causing tempers to flare.
Priorities are often different, also. A farmer may want to save a field and its associated income over a structure on the property. Meanwhile, suppression guidelines can call for structure protection above other values. Understanding landowners’ concerns, ensuring firefighter safety and promoting the most effective firefighting tactics mean helping agencies pre-emptively incorporate locals’ values into response policy, helping everyone know the ground rules before the work begins.
“Being proactive in identifying what a community’s response is and what level of involvement that community expects to have is key,” Paveglio said. “Then the Policy Analysis Group can provide policy guidance on how to move those expectations into acceptable collaboration with firefighting entities.”
The bottom line is state and federal agencies are spending an unsustainable amount of money on fire suppression, Paveglio said. Local people and communities can be vital components in reducing wildfire spending, he said, but a “one-size-fits-all solution” for engaging populations in wildfire management is not the best way to accomplish those goals. Instead, there is a need to provide a range of potential policies, mitigations, and plans that diverse populations of people can implement in their locality.
“Adapting to wildfire means working with the unique local cultures that help define landscapes,” Paveglio said. “Our resources and policies should be designed flexibly and in ways that allow for adaptation across different conditions or populations.”