News highlight: A Nature paper takes off

As I was finishing up another blog post, to be published shortly after this one, I started running some searches on Google to see how often different word combinations came up (wildfire AND disaster, wildfire AND ecology, etc.), using both the general search engine and the news filter. Much to my surprise, I found that I’d  missed a significant event in fire science from the last week: a review in the high-profile journal Nature, titled “Learning to coexist with wildfire,” with Max Moritz out of UC Berkeley as the first author. It’s a good review of the current state of knowledge in wildfire science, with examples focused on the Mediterranean Basin, the Western US, and Australia. Here are a couple of quotes from the paper:

The ‘command and control’ approach typically used in fire management neglects the fundamental role that fire regimes have in sustaining biodiversity and key ecosystem services. Unless people view and plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious consequences for both social and ecological systems.

Viewing fire as a natural and inevitable hazard should be central to most solutions, so we can anticipate its important positive and negative effects on both human and natural systems. Given that combustion is one of the most basic and ongoing natural processes on Earth, we must continue to learn from our experiences to achieve a sustainable coexistence with wildfire.

But the interesting thing is that I did not find out about the paper in an academic way–not through my adviser or someone in my lab group, or from perusing Nature itself, which normally might be the case when a paper like this comes out. It’s a review paper, so most of the material is not terribly novel to those of us who study fire. It’s exciting, however, because Nature is not a journal that has tons of papers about fire all the time–it’s an interdisciplinary natural sciences journal, so any given issue covers a wide range of topics. Most of the papers on fire in my library are from journals like Forest Ecology and Management, or the International Journal of Wildland Fire, or New Phytologist, or Ecology. Only a handful are from Nature or Science. A paper in Nature means that this issue is important and interesting enough that non-ecologists and non-fire scientists should take notice.

And though the primary audience for Nature is scientists, it’s the kind of big journal that science reporters look at to find the big stories on recent publications. And this is what happened with the new fire paper–I found out about it when I saw a slew of news articles, including some in major publications such as The New Yorker, US News, NBC News, and Scientific American as well as smaller news outlets from the UC Santa Barbara Current to the Maine News.

While there are many good articles about wildfire that discuss current science and policy, most focus on particular wildfires, or are too long to hold the attention of many readers, or spend only a short time discussing fire science. Those that discuss fire management and policy tend to only hint at the idea that a suppression-dominated policy is unsustainable. This paper takes a stronger stance: we need to rethink how we deal with wildfire, even if that means more regulation about where and how people build their homes. Something must change.

The New Yorker reports:

“We don’t just have a forest-fire problem,” Moritz told me. “We have a shrubland-fire problem, a grassland-fire problem, and a woodland-fire problem. And the more we rely on fuels reduction to protect us, the more energy we’re taking away from measures that could really make a difference.”

The UCSB Current has this quote:

“A different view of wildfire is urgently needed,” Moritz concluded. “We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. … There is no alternative. The path we are on will lead to a deepening of our fire-related problems worldwide and will only become worse as the climate changes.”

That message works well for the popular media–it’s provocative, it’s assertive, it’s succinct, and it’s based in science. “Rethink wildfire” is a better soundbite than “wildfire is complicated.” It’s only been a week, and it’s only one paper, and their ideas about shifting focus from fuels reduction to managing development may be controversial. Yet there’s reason to believe that this paper could serve as a step forward in reassessing our national wildfire policy.

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