This research was designed to address the need for a more cohesive approach to managing wildfire risk in the western United States. This involves multiple entities with diverse, often competing policies, incentives, and practices who are not well-incentivized to work together or take collective accountability for wildfire risk, despite the growing collective impact of wildfires. Two major disconnects in particular are that while federal land management agencies increasingly recognize the need for wildfire’s ecological role, most state and local entities are mandated to pursue full suppression strategies; and second, that even as entities managing wildfire risk seek to better coordinate their respective actions, they face administrative and policy limitations to sharing resources and responsibilities. As a result of these disconnects, there is a lack of strategies that can bridge mitigation treatments and suppression activities, and unify multiple agencies and organizations in implementing interconnected risk reduction at scale, which we characterize as a state of “parallel play.”
Our central research question was: What factors can overcome organizational disconnects to foster co- management of firesheds in the U.S. West? Study objectives were to: 1. Characterize wildfire risk management at the fireshed scale. 2. Develop new knowledge of relationships between organizational structures/processes and values at risk. 3. Identify boundary spanning organizational attributes and causal factors 4. Inform more effective co-management with validated theories and actionable recommendations
We addressed these objectives through a primarily case study based approach of five purposively selected large landscapes (firesheds) in the U.S. West, which allowed for contextualized insights in specific settings as well as larger-scale theoretical generalizations about boundary spanning in wildfire risk reduction across forest and rangeland landscapes. A total of 93 interviews with 102 interviewees were conducted, and additional data for triangulation were gathered from documents, literature synthesis, and followup interviews. We found that collective action to reduce wildfire risk is challenged by multiple types of boundaries, as well as a fluidity of framings of wildfire risk across social domains and boundary objects, creating some disconnection between how risks are defined and their potential solutions. Multiple forms of boundary spanning actors, functions, and features are needed to overcome these boundaries and disconnects. Community-based and collaborative coalitions are key boundary spanning organizations that can unite actors across organizational boundaries. The practices of prescribed fire and managing wildfire for natural resource objectives help span the boundaries between the functional realms of mitigation and fire response. Our research suggests the need for further investment in boundary spanning actors and functions at local scales, coordinated with efforts to align risk paradigms in broader-level venues; and future applied social science that can continue to identify strategic boundary spanning approaches in varying contexts.