Background: Wildfire mitigation is becoming increasingly urgent, but despite the availability of mitigation tools, such as prescribed fire, managed wildfire, and mechanical thinning, the USA has been unable to scale up mitigation. Limited agency capacity, inability to work across jurisdictions, lack of public support, and procedural delays have all been cited as barriers to mitigation. But in the context of limited resources and increasing urgency, how should agencies prioritize investments to address these barriers?
Results: To better understand different investments for scaling up mitigation, we examined how the wildfire problem is framed, building on existing social science demonstrating that agency approaches depend in part on how problems are framed. Using national-level policy documents and in-depth interviews, we found three ways of framing the barriers to scaling up mitigation, each emphasizing certain aspects of the problem and prioritizing different solutions or investments. The first framing, the Usual Suspects, focused on inadequate resources, cumbersome procedural requirements, delays due to litigation, and lack of public support. The solutions—to increase funding, streamline NEPA, limit litigation, and educate the public—suggest that more resources and fewer restrictions will enable agencies to scale up mitigation. The second framing, Agency-Agency Partnerships, focused on the ways that organizational structure and capacity constrain the development of effective cross-boundary collaboration. Here solutions prioritized organizational changes and capacity building to enable agencies to navigate different missions and build trust in order to develop shared priorities. The third framing, Engaging the Public, focused on lack of public support for mitigation, the need for meaningful public engagement and multi-stakeholder collaboration, and investments to build support to scale up mitigation.
Conclusions: This analysis reveals that investing in collaborative capacity to advance agency-agency partnerships and public engagement might not slow down mitigation, but rather enable agencies to “go slow to go fast” by building the support and mechanisms necessary to increase the pace and scale of mitigation work. Reframing the wildfire problem through a careful analysis of competing frames and the underlying assumptions that privilege particular solutions can reveal a broader suite of solutions that address the range of key barriers.