Forest ThreatNet

Volume 9, Issue 2 - May/June 2016

Western Threat Center Highlight: Do social dynamics undermine wildfire risk reduction success in U.S. forests?

By Tanner Jessel, ORISE fellow in science communication, Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center

social_dynamics.jpgWildfire risk is determined by the interplay of fuel hazards and community values, sensitivity, and capacity to adapt to threats. In a recently published paper, U.S. Forest Service and university researchers caution that social, political, and economic factors -- “social dynamics” -- can undermine wildfire risk management success. Pairing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis and interviews with land managers in a case study of three Central Oregon National Forests, the researchers found that Forest Service fuels reduction work doesn’t always reduce wildfire risk, and social dynamics (Figure 1) are likely responsible.

Figure 1: A conceptual model shows social dynamics that can influence hazardous fuels reduction (Originally adapted from Moseley and Charnley 2014). Click the image to enlarge.

Wildland fuels hazard reduction is no simple task. The social dynamics identified in this study add complexity, influencing where and how fuels treatments are carried out. Objective GIS analysis reveals a mismatch between treated sites and high-hazard sites in the three national forests studied. For example, one-on-one interviews with land managers suggest that legally mandated performance goals measured in “total acres” may favor fuels reduction work on 1000 “easy” acres over 200 difficult to access, high hazard acres, incentivizing “quick and easy” work. In other cases, budget constraints pushed land managers to seek efficiencies like combining fuels reduction goals with timber production goals, diverting work from high-hazard areas to harvestable areas with low fire risk.

The authors suggest options to better manage wildfire risk:

  • critically examine laws or policies that govern risk management;
  • identify social dynamics that possibly hinder effective risk management;
  • adopt alternative metrics of success for fuel treatment work;
  • balance the efforts between prescribed fire and fire suppression;
  • prioritize areas of high risk for fuels treatment; and
  • discourage inter-dependence of fuels treatment and forest products.


The study was funded by the Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (WWETAC) and the National Science Foundation.

For more information:


Charnley, S., Poe, M., Ager, A., Spies, T., Platt, E., Olsen, K.O. 2015. “A Burning Problem: Social Dynamics of Disaster Risk Reduction through Wildfire Mitigation.” Human Organization 74 (4): 329–40. doi:

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