Balancing Fire Hazards and Resource Protection

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Human impacts on fires across California have been quite diverse. In many forests, fires have been nearly excluded over the past century, causing an unhealthy accumulation of dead vegetation and a greater threat of severe fires. However, on much of California’s lower elevation foothills and valleys, humans have greatly increased fire frequency. These landscapes are often juxtaposed with metropolitan areas. To help resource managers reduce housing losses and balance the health of the local environment, WERC’s Dr. Jon Keeley partners with property owners, resource agencies, and policymakers study the factors that influence the spread and frequency of fires in the area between city and wildland. 

Wildfires are a natural part of many Californian ecosystems and play an important role in keeping the environment healthy. However, growing human communities have brought up the issue of balancing ecosystem health and safety. WERC’s Dr. Jon Keeley is involved in several studies that focus on identifying the factors, both societal and environmental, that can affect both sides, while also examining the role that past fire management practices have on ecosystems and fire patterns today.

Photo of a plane dropping flame retardant on a wildfire
Photo of a plane dropping flame retardant on a fire. Image purchased with USGS funds.

Fire Risk Scenario in Southern California

The Fire Risk Scenario project’s overarching goal is to provide management agencies like the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service with the information they need to reduce housing losses on neighboring properties while minimizing effects on natural ecosystems. Dr. Keeley studies the influence of the amount of open space around a house, construction materials, land planning decisions, and other factors in creating uncontrollable fires that pass into neighborhoods within the boundary between urban areas and wildland. While the research takes place primarily in southern California, it can also be applied to the Great Basin as well as other Mediterranean-climate ecosystems.


Effectiveness and Effects of Fuel Treatments in Southern California 

While fuel treatments like prescribed fire are effective means of controlling fires in forests, they do not always have the same results in other environments. In some cases, fuel treatments that are successful in forested ecosystems are of limited value on non-forested landscapes and can even cause habitat loss. Dr. Keeley studies the effects of fuel treatments on chaparral shrublands in southern California to help resource managers identify when and where these tools are effective and how to best apply them in a way that minimizes harm to natural resources.


Examining Ignition Factors in Human-Caused Fires

Fire prevention is often the key to successful fire management, and across much of California, humans are the source of ignition for the vast majority of wildfires. Dr. Keeley has been examining long-term historical records as well modern remote sensing data to determine the types of human actions responsible for the most damaging fires. This work will shed light on management strategies to reduce fire risk for humans in the region.