Wildfire management, ecosystem dynamics, and climate: the role of risk salience in driving ecological outcomes
The current multi-year drought in the western U.S. highlights the increasing challenges posed by wildfires. While science in the past decades has substantially improved our understanding of wildfire as an integral part of ecosystems, questions remain about how fire, human actions, climate, and ecosystem responses co-evolve. As more people are exposed to fires and fire risk, these linkages between human actions to mitigate fire risk and the environmental consequences of fire increase. We hope to develop a new approach to examine the complex linkage among fire management actions such as fuels treatments, fire risk, and post-fire effects, including risks to water resources and other ecosystem services. We use salience theory, which predicts that management actions will be more responsive to salient wildfire events, to guide data-driven analysis of previous public fire management decisions. We then link these results to a spatial model of ecosystem dynamics, hydrology, and fire risk. We employ state-of-the-art software engineering techniques to develop and evaluate this model by integrating extensive biophysical, climate, and management datasets. We also take advantage of new approaches for presenting results of complex modeling to stakeholders, including resource managers and the public. We work closely with COMPASS, an organization that focuses on science communication, and a visual artist to help translate model results into intuitive graphics of multi-directional relationships that underlie fire risk. Results of this work will improve our understanding of wildfire risk and more importantly present information that can help managers more effectively target limited management resources.