Beyond smoke and mirrors: a synthesis of fire policy and science

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  • Fire performs many beneficial ecosystem functions in dry forests and rangelands across much of North America. In the last century, however, the role of fire has been dramatically altered by numerous anthropogenic factors acting as root causes of the current fire crisis, including widespread logging, road building, fire suppression, habitat fragmentation, urban development, livestock grazing, and, more recently, climate change. The intensity and extent of fires in the western United States, specifically, have dramatically increased over the past several decades. Such shifts in fire behavior have triggered sweeping policy changes that were intended to prevent or contain fires but that pose significant risks to the integrity of ecosystems and the role fire historically played in shaping them. Here, we provide a social and ecological context for summarizing this special issue on fires, including general guidelines and principles for managers concerned about balancing the risks of inaction against the risks of action over extensive areas. Fundamental to our understanding of fire is the notion that it is extremely variable, has multiple causes, and requires ecological solutions that are sensitive to spatial scale and context. Therefore, forest managers must recognize that different forest types have different fire regimes and require fundamentally different fire- management policies. Furthermore, to restore or maintain ecological integrity, including the role of fire, treatments need to be tailored to site-specific conditions with an adaptive approach. We provide a conceptual framework for prioritizing fuel treatments and restoration activities in the wildlands-urban intermix versus those in wildland areas farther from human settlement. In general, the science of conservation biology has much to offer in helping to shape wildfire policy direction; however, conservation biologists must become more engaged to better ensure that policy decisions are based on sound science and that ecological risks are incorporated.
  • Keywords: Fire restoration, Wildfire policy, Ecological integrity, Public lands
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  • Dellsala, D. A., Williams, J. E., Deacon Williams, C., & Franklin, J. F. (2004). Beyond smoke and mirrors: a synthesis of fire policy and science. Conservation Biology, 18(4), 976-986.
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  • 18
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  • Lazar Foundation, Harder Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Lucile and David Packard Foundation
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