CIE Spotlight: When making decisions about fire management, protecting houses is not the only consideration

Don D.
Don D.

Title: Resolving future fire management conflicts using multicriteria decision making

Authors: Driscoll, Don A.; Bode, Michael; Bradstock, Ross A.; Keith, David A.; Penman, Trent D.; Price, Owen F.

Source: CONSERVATION BIOLOGY, 30 (1):196-205, FEB 2016

Intro: What if more people die from the effects of smoke from fuel-reduction burning than are likely to die in catastrophic fires? What if current fire management isn’t any good at protecting houses and lives and there are alternatives that better protect houses, but also reduce smoke and benefit biodiversity?

This new paper addresses these challenging questions, showing how a combination of common sense and modelling can cut through the politics and inertia in fire management to discover more effective ways for achieving multiple objectives.

Brief summary of the paper: Management strategies to reduce the risks to human life and property from wildfire commonly involve burning native vegetation. However, planned burning can conflict with other societal objectives such as human health and biodiversity conservation.

These conflicts are likely to intensify as fire regimes change under future climates and as growing human populations encroach farther into fire-prone ecosystems. Decisions about managing fire risks are therefore complex and warrant more sophisticated approaches than are typically used.

We applied a multicriteria decision making approach (MCDA) with the potential to improve fire management outcomes to the case of a highly populated, biodiverse, and flammable wildland–urban interface. We considered the effects of 22 planned burning options on 8 objectives: house protection, maximizing water quality, minimizing carbon emissions and impacts on human health, and minimizing declines of 5 distinct species types.

The MCDA identified a small number of management options (burning forest adjacent to houses) that performed well for most objectives, but not for one species type (arboreal mammal) or for water quality. Although MCDA made the conflict between objectives explicit, resolution of the problem depended on the weighting assigned to each objective. Additive weighting of criteria traded off the arboreal mammal and water quality objectives for other objectives. Multiplicative weighting identified scenarios that avoided poor outcomes for any objective, which is important for avoiding potentially irreversible biodiversity losses.

To distinguish reliably among management options, future work should focus on reducing uncertainty in outcomes across a range of objectives. Considering management actions that have more predictable outcomes than landscape fuel management will be important.

We found that, where data were adequate, an MCDA can support decision making in the complex and often conflicted area of fire management.