September 27, 2012
Warner College of Natural Resources experts were the center of international attention at the International Disaster Risk Congress Global Risk Forum in Davos, Switzerland recently discussing Colorado's historic wildfire season.
Mike Manfredo, professor and head of the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, addressed the recent wildfires, their social impacts and global implications at the forum. Collaborators on the plenary address were Jerry Vaske and Fredrick Smith, also of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, and U.S. Forest Service research social scientist Jim Absher.
The presentation highlighted the social factors and consequences associated with wildfire disasters that are often overshadowed by the ecological impacts. The ecological factors that often drive wildfire behavior are well documented - unusually warmer temperatures, drought conditions and poor forest health related to insects and disease. According to Manfredo, the real crux of wildfire crisis now and even more so in the future, is the expanding settlement of people in high fire-hazard areas - creating associated risks of loss to residences, infrastructure and disruption of economic activities.
“The growing concern about fire is as much a social problem as it is an ecological one,” said Manfredo. “With more people living in fire hazard zones and a growing number of fires, statistics are showing the costs of fire mitigation and restoration is growing dramatically – which can have exponential ramifications to society.”
Population growth and urban-to-rural migrations are occurring in many places across the United States, including Colorado. While urban areas continue to draw populations with employment and cultural opportunities, there is a growing trend of settlement in forested foothills that embody the quality of life and idyllic scenery many residents seek - regardless of the inherent risks. These risks are made even more complex by the lack of standardized requirements for fire mitigation land management practices by homeowners.
“With mounting costs and growing severity of fires, it is unclear whether the current fire suppression policies are adequate to deal with the growing economic burden of fire suppression,” said Manfredo. “A pervasive question discussed at the IDRC asked how we can develop new institutional arrangements that improve the resilience of society against large-scale disaster events. That concern cut across all levels of government and all types of disasters.”
Some emerging areas of social innovation that were presented in the address were public-private partnerships and novel risk transfer schemes. In the case of fire, for example, these models would involve increasing financial responsibility for communities located in fire hazard zones. However, the risk would still be shared with government, and in some types of partnerships, the risk might be mediated through private companies that would provide insurance instruments to protect against the suppression costs of extraordinary fire events. The insurance, in turn, might be contingent upon certain building codes and/or implementation of “fire wise” behaviors (elimination of trees around structures).
“While such programs might require extraordinary collaboration among affected stakeholders - national, state, and local political entities and private companies - the time to explore options is now,” Manfredo said.