Montana Researchers Publish ‘Rethinking Resilience to Wildfire’ in Nature Sustainability

August 20, 2019

UM News Service

MISSOULA – Wildfires in the West are becoming inevitable, and communities that rethink what it means to live with them will fare better than those that simply rebuild after they burn.

So says a new paper published in Nature Sustainability, research stemming from a collaboration among scientists from the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, Montana State University, the U.S. Forest Service and other institutions across North America.

The paper, published Aug.19, outlines different ways in which communities can support social and ecological resilience in Western landscapes. The researchers argue that communities should look beyond basic resilience – bouncing back to pre-fire conditions following a wildfire – and consider how to adapt or even transform to better co-exist with wildfire in the future. The authors also provide examples of communities that have successfully done so in recent years.

“The key point of our paper is that current approaches to responding to wildfire are not working, especially as fire seasons are getting warmer and longer,” said lead author Dave McWethy, assistant professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. “In many fire-susceptible landscapes, rebuilding after wildfire leaves communities in a constant state of vulnerability.”

Wildfires in the West are becoming inevitable, and communities that rethink what it means to live with them will fare better than those that simply rebuild after they burn, according to a new paper published this week in Nature Sustainability. Photo courtesy of Lily Clarke.The paper is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration of ecologists and social scientists supported by a 2017 grant from the federal Joint Fire Science Program, addressing the challenges communities and land managers face when responding to wildfire by identifying actions that promote both social and ecological resilience. The core research team includes UM’s Philip Higuera, Alex Metcalf and Libby Metcalf; MSU’s McWethy; and U.S. Forest Service scientist Carol Miller.

“There are increasing efforts to promote ‘resilience to wildfire’ by managers, policy makers and the public at large, from the national level down to individual cities like Missoula,” said Higuera, UM associate professor of fire ecology. “But as extreme fire seasons become increasingly common, it’s getting more challenging to see exactly what this resilience might look like, particularly since we know fire is an important component of Western landscapes that can’t just be excluded. Our paper shows how resilience can take on a different look and feel in different communities and environments.”

The authors cite recent wildfire events as reasons why a new approach is needed: the 2017 fire season was the most expensive ever for the U.S. government at $2.9 billion, and California saw both its largest and most deadly fires in history in 2018.

The authors argue that learning to better live with wildfire starts with acknowledging that fire is inevitable in Western North American landscapes. Fire was historically a critical feature shaping those landscapes, and efforts to control and stop fires have had the unintended consequence of making communities more vulnerable to destructive burns, especially as the climate becomes increasingly warm and dry, the researchers write.

The paper uses Montecito, California, as one of its examples. After a series of severe fires in the 1960s, the Montecito Fire Protection District took steps toward what the researchers call “adaptive resilience.” This included creating defensible space around homes (a space without woody fuels), “hardening” homes by using fire-resistant building materials, reducing fuels across the larger landscape through prescribed fire and other treatments, and implementing detailed fire planning and response outreach programs. The authors argue that those practices paid off more than four decades later, substantially reducing the damage caused to homes in Montecito by the Thomas Fire in 2017.

Similar practices could be tailored to fit varying ecosystems and communities, making adaptive and transformative resilience more widespread, the researchers said.

“It is important to remember that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach for living with wildfire,” said Alex Metcalf, UM assistant professor of human dimensions. “In some places, it will make sense to continue defending structures and other human values. Elsewhere, fighting wildfire will be futile given warming patterns, so people must adapt. In other instances, people will have to entirely re-envision development patterns given the realities of wildfire.”

This piece follows the publication of another paper in May by the same core team from UM, MSU and the USFS in the journal Bioscience. That paper outlined a framework for natural resource managers and communities to use when incorporating social and biophysical considerations into resilience thinking.

In addition to Higuera and Metcalf, UM co-authors include Libby Metcalf and Cara Nelson. Other co-authors include researchers from MSU, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Oregon State University, University of Washington, Colorado State University, the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station, The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, University of Colorado-Denver, Middle Path EcoSolutions, University of Lethbridge, Cornell University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Idaho.

The paper, “Rethinking resilience to wildfire,” is available online at:


Contact: Philip Higuera, UM associate professor of fire ecology, 406-599-8908,; Alex Metcalf, UM assistant professor of human dimensions, 814-574-6128,