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Systems thinking and wildland fire management

January, 2015

Fire in ponderosa pine forest
Fire moving through a ponderosa pine forest. The “cat face” or fire scar on the ponderosa pine reveals that this tree has survived several past fires.

Simply put, fundamental changes in how the U.S. fire management community thinks about, learns from, plans for, and responds to wildland fires may be necessary to close the gap between intentions and actions. We propose that reevaluating the fire management system is a necessary first step to identify leverage points that could achieve desirable and sustainable changes in behavior. We do not propose that addressing internal factors alone will be sufficient to foster more resilient landscapes and communities; rather, we stress that any comprehensive strategy for change ought to critically examine the fire management system from within. Our work is intended to initiate a broader dialogue around the current and future state of wildland fire management in the western U.S.

In this body of work, we use systems thinking as a lens to understand systemic forces driving fire manager behaviors and the systemic risks that those behaviors present. We evaluate the behavior of fire managers in light of the structure of the system in which they operate, influenced by factors such as incentives, culture, and capacity. We account for the complexity and uncertainty of fire management decisions, recognizing they often entail balancing multiple, non-commensurate objectives like ecological resources and responder exposure. Using systems thinking helps us achieve a core tenet of risk management – being proactive rather than reactive – by more fully characterizing the environment in which fire management decisions are made, and anticipating factors that may lead to compromised decision making.

The Wildfire Risk Management Team is attempting to develop a deeper, systems-level understanding of our land and fire management institutions, and identifying how socio-institutional structures and forces may lead to behaviors and actions that may not align with organizational mission and values. The Team is also attempting to better understand individual decisions as the precursor to patterns of behaviors, and in particular examining factors such as biases in perceiving and managing risk, how fire managers jointly consider wildfire probability, suppression strategy likelihood of success, and values at risk.

Conceptual model of managerial, social, and ecological drivers of near-term and future wildfire management response.


Riley, Karin ; Williams, A. Park ; Urbanski, Shawn P. ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Short, Karen C. ; O'Connor, Christopher D. , 2019
Thompson, Matthew P. ; MacGregor, Donald G. ; Dunn, Christopher J. ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Phipps, John , 2018
Dunn, Christopher J. ; Thompson, Matthew P. ; Calkin, Dave E. , 2017
Thompson, Matthew P. ; Dunn, Christopher J. ; Calkin, Dave E. , 2017
Dunn, Christopher J. ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Thompson, Matthew P. , 2017
Calkin, Dave E. ; Thompson, Matthew P. ; Finney, Mark A. , 2015
Hand, Michael ; Wibbenmeyer, Matthew J. ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Thompson, Matthew P. , 2015
Thompson, Matthew P. ; Dunn, Christopher ; Calkin, Dave E. , 2015
Wibbenmeyer, Matthew J. ; Hand, Michael ; Calkin, Dave E. ; Venn, Tyron J. ; Thompson, Matthew P. , 2013
Calkin, Dave E. ; Venn, Tyron ; Wibbenmeyer, Matthew ; Thompson, Matthew P. , 2012

National Strategic Program Areas: 
Wildland Fire and Fuels
RMRS Science Program Areas: 
Human Dimensions
RMRS Strategic Priorities: 
Fire Sciences; Human-Landscape Interactions
Project Contact: 

Principal Investigators: