Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Rethinking resilience to wildfire


Record-breaking fire seasons are becoming increasingly common worldwide, and large wildfires are having extraordinary impacts on people and property, despite years of investments to support social–ecological resilience to wildfires. This has prompted new calls for land management and policy reforms as current land and fire management approaches have been unable to effectively respond to the rapid changes in climate and development patterns that strongly control fire behaviour and continue to exacerbate the risks and hazards to human communities. Promoting social–ecological resilience in rapidly changing, fire-susceptible landscapes requires adoption of multiple perspectives of resilience, extending beyond ‘basic resilience’ (or bouncing back to a similar state) to include ‘adaptive resilience’ and ‘transformative resilience’, which require substantial and explicit changes to social–ecological systems. Clarifying these different perspectives and identifying where they will be most effective helps prioritize efforts to better coexist with wildfire in an increasingly flammable world.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Specifying basic, adaptive and transformative-resilience goals based on social–ecological context.

Lily Jane Clarke (a); Forest Service, USDA (b,d); Oregon Department of Forestry under a Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0 (c); Bureau of Land Management (e); US DOD, (f; the appearance of US Department of Defense visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement); Ray Ford, (g); Craig D. Allen / USGS (h).


  1. 1.

    Balch, J. K. et al. Switching on the big burn of 2017. Fire 1, 17 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    The National Strategy (US Forest Service, 2014).

  3. 3.

    Schultz, C. A., Thompson, M. P. & McCaffrey, S. M. Forest Service fire management and the elusiveness of change. Fire Ecol. 15, 13 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Fischer, A. P. et al. Wildfire risk as a socioecological pathology. Front. Ecol. Environ. 14, 276–284 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    North, M. P. et al. Reform forest fire management. Science 349, 1280–1281 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Schoennagel, T. et al. Adapt to more wildfire in western North American forests as climate changes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4582–4590 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Dodge, M. Forest fuel accumulation—a growing problem. Science 177, 139–142 (1972).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    McDonald, T., Gann, G. D., Jonson, J. & Dixon, K. W. International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration – Including Principles and Key Concepts (Society for Ecological Restoration, 2016).

  9. 9.

    Abatzoglou, J. T. & Williams, A. P. Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 11770–11775 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Radeloff, V. C. et al. Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 3314–3319 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Bowman, D. M. J. S. et al. Human exposure and sensitivity to globally extreme wildfire events. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 0058 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Schoennagel, T., Veblen, T. T. & Romme, W. H. The interaction of fire, fuels, and climate across Rocky Mountain forests. BioScience 54, 661–676 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Smith, A. M. S. et al. The science of firescapes: achieving fire-resilient communities. BioScience 66, 130–146 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Smith, A. M. S., Kolden, C. A. & Bowman, D. M. J. S. Biomimicry can help humans to coexist sustainably with fire. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 2, 1827–1829 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Moritz, M. A. et al. Learning to coexist with wildfire. Nature 515, 58–66 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Calkin, D. E., Cohen, J. D., Finney, M. A. & Thompson, M. P. How risk management can prevent future wildfire disasters in the wildland-urban interface. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 746–751 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Holling, C. S. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 4, 1–23 (1973).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Pelling, M. The Vulnerability of Cities: Natural Disasters and Social Resilience (Routledge, 2012).

  19. 19.

    Walker, B., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, S. R. & Kinzig, A. Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 9, 5 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Olsson, L., Jerneck, A., Thoren, H., Persson, J. & O’Byrne, D. Why resilience is unappealing to social science: theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience. Sci. Adv. 1, e1400217 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Manyena, S. B. Disaster Resilience in Development and Humanitarian Interventions. PhD thesis, Northumbria Univ. (2009).

  22. 22.

    Kolden, C. What the Dutch can teach us about wildfires. The New York Times (16 November 2018);

  23. 23.

    Ager, A. A. et al. Network analysis of wildfire transmission and implications for risk governance. PLOS ONE 12, e0172867 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Higuera, P. E. et al. Integrating subjective and objective dimensions of resilience in fire-prone landscapes. BioScience 69, 379–388 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Institute of Medicine Healthy, Resilient, and Sustainable Communities After Disasters: Strategies, Opportunities, and Planning for Recovery (The National Academies Press, 2015);

  26. 26.

    Keane, R. E., Hessburg, P. F., Landres, P. B. & Swanson, F. J. The use of historical range and variability (HRV) in landscape management. Ecol. Manag. 258, 1025–1037 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Schoennagel, T., Nelson, C. R., Theobald, D. M., Carnwath, G. C. & Chapman, T. B. Implementation of National Fire Plan treatments near the wildland-urban interface in the western United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 10706–10711 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Harvey, B. J., Donato, D. C. & Turner, M. G. High and dry: post-fire tree seedling establishment in subalpine forests decreases with post-fire drought and large stand-replacing burn patches. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 25, 655–669 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Paveglio, T. B., Carroll, M. S., Stasiewicz, A. M., Williams, D. R. & Becker, D. R. Incorporating social diversity into wildfire management: proposing “pathways” for fire adaptation. For. Sci. 64, 515–532 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Davis, K. T. et al. Wildfires and climate change push low-elevation forests across a critical climate threshold for tree regeneration. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 6193–6198 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Stevens-Rumann, C. S. et al. Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change. Ecol. Lett. 21, 243–252 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Krawchuk, M. A. et al. Topographic and fire weather controls of fire refugia in forested ecosystems of northwestern North America. Ecosphere 7, e01632 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Robinson, N. M. et al. Refuges for fauna in fire-prone landscapes: their ecological function and importance. J. Appl. Ecol. 50, 1321–1329 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Meddens, A. J. H. et al. Fire refugia: what are they, and why do they matter for global change? BioScience 68, 944–954 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Liang, S., Hurteau, M. D. & Westerling, A. L. Large-scale restoration increases carbon stability under projected climate and wildfire regimes. Front. Ecol. Environ. 16, 207–212 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Hood, S. M., Baker, S. & Sala, A. Fortifying the forest: thinning and burning increase resistance to a bark beetle outbreak and promote forest resilience. Ecol. Appl. 26, 1984–2000 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Building a More Resilient Grid (Sunrun, 2019);

  38. 38.

    Barnett, K., Parks, S. A., Miller, C. & Naughton, H. T. Beyond fuel treatment effectiveness: characterizing interactions between fire and treatments in the US. Forests 7, 237 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Shindler, B. et al. Trust: A Planning Guide for Wildfire Agencies and Practitioners—An International Collaboration Drawing on Research and Management Experience in Australia, Canada, and the United States (Joint Fire Science Program, Oregon State University, 2014).

  40. 40.

    Martinson, E. J. & Omi, P. N. Fuel Treatments and Fire Severity: A Meta-analysis (USDA, 2013).

  41. 41.

    Lake, F. K. et al. Returning fire to the land: celebrating traditional knowledge and fire. J. For. 115, 343–353 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Ryan, K. C., Knapp, E. E. & Varner, J. M. Prescribed fire in North American forests and woodlands: history, current practice, and challenges. Front. Ecol. Environ. 11, 15–24 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Kulig, J. & Pujadas Botey, A. Facing a wildfire: what did we learn about individual and community resilience? Nat. Hazards 82, 1919–1929 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Wigtil, G. et al. Places where wildfire potential and social vulnerability coincide in the coterminous United States. Int. J. Wildland Fire 25, 896–908 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Stedman, R. C. Subjectivity and social-ecological systems: a rigidity trap (and sense of place as a way out). Sustain. Sci. 11, 891–901 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Frantzeskaki, N., van Steenbergen, F. & Stedman, R. C. Sense of place and experimentation in urban sustainability transitions: the Resilience Lab in Carnisse, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Sustain. Sci. 13, 1045–1059 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Nauslar, J. N., Abatzoglou, T. J. & Marsh, T. P. The 2017 North Bay and Southern California fires: a case study. Fire 1, 18 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Howell, J. & Elliott, J. R. Damages done: the longitudinal impacts of natural hazards on wealth inequality in the United States. Soc. Probl. 66, 448–467 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Turner, M. G., Whitby, T. G., Tinker, D. B. & Romme, W. H. Twenty-four years after the Yellowstone fires: are postfire lodgepole pine stands converging in structure and function? Ecology 97, 1260–1273 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Hansen, W. D. & Turner, M. G. Origins of abrupt change? Postfire subalpine conifer regeneration declines nonlinearly with warming and drying. Ecol. Monogr. 89, e01340 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Turner, M. G., Braziunas, K. H., Hansen, W. D. & Harvey, B. J. Short-interval severe fire erodes the resilience of subalpine lodgepole pine forests. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 11319–11328 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Mensing, S. A., Michaelsen, J. & Byrne, R. A 560-year record of Santa Ana fires reconstructed from charcoal deposited in the Santa Barbara Basin, California. Quat. Res. 51, 295–305 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Kolden, A. C. & Henson, C. A socio-ecological approach to mitigating wildfire vulnerability in the wildland urban interface: a case study from the 2017 Thomas fire. Fire 2, 9 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    A Defensible Community? A Retrospective Study of Montecito Fire Protection District’s Wildland Fire Program during the 2017 Thomas Fire (GEO Elements, LLC, Montecito Fire Department, 2018)

  55. 55.

    Fowler, C. & Konopik, E. The history of fire in the southern United States. Hum. Ecol. Rev. 14, 165–176 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Kulig, J. C., Edge, D. S., Townshend, I., Lightfoot, N. & Reimer, W. Community resiliency: emerging theoretical insights. J. Community Psychol. 41, 758–775 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Kolden, C. A. We’re not doing enough prescribed fire to reduce wildfire risk in the western United States. Fire 2, 30 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This manuscript was the result of a workshop held at the University of Montana in May 2017, titled ‘Defining ecological and social resilience in fire-prone landscapes’, funded by the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) through award 16-3-01-24 to P.E.H., A.L.M., C.M., D.B.M. and E.C.M. Additional support came from the National Science Foundation, through awards BCS-1539820 and BCS-1832486 to D.B.M., DEB-1655121 to P.E.H., DEB-1719905 to Z.R. and DMS-1520873 to C.K. Z.R. was also supported by JFSP award 16-3-01-04.

Author information




D.B.M., T.S., P.E.H., M.K., B.J.H., E.C.M., C.S., C.M. and A.L.M. developed the outline and conceptual framework; all authors contributed ideas, provided critical feedback and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David B. McWethy.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McWethy, D.B., Schoennagel, T., Higuera, P.E. et al. Rethinking resilience to wildfire. Nat Sustain 2, 797–804 (2019).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing