Photo Credit: Caughlin Ranch, on the western fringe of Reno, Nevada, contains high fuel loads in residential areas and is exposed to fire danger from public lands to the west. Photo by Jesse Abrams

The actions that people take, individually or collectively, to change how they interact with fire-prone landscapes are the fundamental building blocks of fire adapted communities. In attempting to understand and influence these actions, practitioners and researchers often focus on things like people’s awareness of fire risk and their access to resources for mitigating that risk. However, they often overlook the importance of institutions in affecting people’s decision-making processes. Institutions are the formal and informal “rules of the game” that structure social behavior. They include things as diverse as federal, state and local laws; systems of economic incentives and constraints faced by organizations and individuals; and cultural norms and expectations of how things are “supposed” to work. Institutions are important because fire preparedness and management involve not only individual community members but also community-level organizations as well as state and federal fire and land management agencies—each with their own cultures, budgetary incentives and legal frameworks.

In a research article recently published in the journal Ecology and Society, my co-authors and I explore how and why institutions matter in shaping community adaptation in response to direct experience with wildfire. We focus on two communities in particular. Caughlin Ranch, a suburban neighborhood on the western edge of Reno, Nevada, was threatened by the 2007 Hawken Fire and the 2011 Caughlin Fire; it remains at high risk of future fires due to high fuel loadings on and near residential properties combined with the neighborhood’s exposure to fire-prone public lands immediately to the west. Raton, New Mexico was hit hard by the 2011 Track Fire, which burned at high severity throughout the city’s municipal watershed, destroying several structures and drastically altering the appearance of treasured recreational areas. While these two communities are quite different from one another—one an affluent suburb of a mid-sized city, the other a rural community traditionally dependent on mining, agriculture and transportation—the ways in which their adaptation to wildfire was affected by institutions point to important insights for researchers and practitioners. Here we share three key lessons to emerge from this research.

Lesson 1: The scale of institutions should match the scale of the problem. While this sounds complicated, it’s actually quite simple: community-scale issues are best addressed by formal and informal rules at the community scale, whereas larger-scale institutions are needed to address landscape-scale issues. In Caughlin Ranch, the community-scale homeowners’ association (HOA) had long instituted formal rules that applied to all homeowners in the community and affected their exposure to fire risk. In Raton, stakeholders representing diverse interests at local, state and federal scales came together prior to the Track Fire to focus specifically on fire concerns at the watershed scale. Their collaborative efforts represented a new mode of working together that was institutionalized over time. Thus, both communities had institutions that matched the scale of their problems, giving them at least the potential to address key issues. However, anyone who knows fire issues understands that fire effects can occur at a variety of scales, from very local to widespread, and that local, regional and national organizations are involved in fire management. This leads to the second lesson.

The 2011 Track Fire burned at high severity in Sugarite Canyon State Park in New Mexico, which serves as the municipal watershed for the city of Raton. Photo Credit: Jesse Abrams

The 2011 Track Fire burned at high severity in Sugarite Canyon State Park in New Mexico, which serves as the municipal watershed for the city of Raton. Photo Credit: Jesse Abrams

Lesson 2: There is a need to link institutions within and across scales. Both Caughlin Ranch and Raton are situated in multi-ownership landscapes and depend on multiple organizations, such as HOAs, local fire departments, rural fire districts, state forestry and wildlife agencies, federal land managers, community-scale civic organizations, cooperative extension, and emergency managers, as well as homeowners themselves. Given this diverse array of actors, there is a need for communication, coordination and trust building to make the “rules” of the system work cohesively as a whole. In Raton, the collaborative watershed organization served this function because it was a common forum for representatives of various interests and agencies to meet one another, share perspectives and lessons, and learn from each other. Caughlin Ranch didn’t have a parallel organization and as a result the various entities remained isolated from one another both before and after the Hawken and Caughlin fire events.

Lesson 3: Institutions should be adaptable. Because we focused on communities that had already had direct experience with wildfire events, we had the opportunity to research how those communities changed in the aftermath. We found that the adaptability of institutions determined the adaptability of the communities as a whole. In Caughlin Ranch, community leaders and many residents recognized the seriousness of the fire risk, but HOA procedures and incentives made it difficult to change the management of vegetation on individual properties. Although the HOA stepped up its efforts to reduce fuel loads in parks and other common areas, the neighborhood as a whole failed to adapt appreciably in the wake of two close calls. In contrast, Raton showed more adaptability: local contractors were able to move quickly in the wake of the fire to perform emergency watershed stabilization; rural fire districts in the area increased their mutual aid agreements and strengthened their relationships; and the county created a new on-demand rural fire district as well as an emergency manager tasked with coordinating other entities.

       These examples give an introductory lesson in how institutions can shape community fire preparedness and post-fire adaptation. Although there is always a need to consider issues such as homeowner awareness and access to resources, our research illustrates the importance of institutions, the formal and informal “rules of the game,” at local, regional and national scales. Especially important for building fire adapted communities is the ability of people and organizations within these communities to change institutions to allow them to better prepare for wildfire and ultimately learn to co-exist peacefully with it.

Full research article (open access):

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