Systems Thinking and Wildland Fire Management


  • Matthew P Thompson USDA Forest Service
  • Christopher J Dunn Oregon State University
  • David E Calkin USDA Forest Service


hazard, risk, uncertainty, decision making, ecosystems


A changing climate, changing development and land use patterns, and increasing pressures on ecosystem services raise global concerns over growing losses associated with wildland fires. New management paradigms acknowledge that fire is inevitable and often uncontrollable, and focus on living with fire rather than attempting to eliminate it from the landscape. A notable example from the U.S. is the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which aims to bring multiple agencies, landowners and stakeholders together to achieve three broadly defined goals: resilient landscapes, fire-adapted human communities, and safe and effective response to fire. Implicit in the structure of these three goals is the nexus of three systems: the ecological system, the social system, and the fire management system, respectively. This systems-based structure reflects a perspective that contextualizes fire as a disturbance process that influences and is in turn influenced by other agents and processes within a broader socio-ecological system. While the need for transformative system change is well-recognized, at least three central challenges remain: (1) the need for more parties to accept that how fires are managed is in many instances the limiting factor of system behaviour; (2) the need to improve our understanding of the characteristics and complexities of the fire management system itself; and (3) perhaps most fundamentally, the need to coherently apply systems analysis principles in order to improve system performance. In this paper we attempt to bridge these gaps by applying systems thinking to contemporary wildfire management issues in the U.S. We review in more detail what we mean when we say fire management system, describe observed system behaviours and patterns, and begin to unravel factors that may influence behaviour.  We synthesize findings from various lines of fire-related research and identify how collectively they reflect systemic flaws stemming from feedbacks, delays, bounded rationality, misaligned incentives, and other factors. These flaws are manifest in what is known as the “fire paradox,” whereby a legacy of fire exclusion in fire-prone forests has led to hazardous accumulations of flammable vegetation such that future fires burn with higher intensity and are more resistant to control; today’s “success” begets tomorrow’s failure. To conclude we offer some ideas for next steps and system redesign to better align behaviour with purpose, largely borrowing from risk and decision analysis. Our primary objective is to sufficiently frame and gain agreement on what we view as essentially a systemic problem.

Author Biography

Matthew P Thompson, USDA Forest Service

Research Forester

Human Dimensions Program, Rocky Mountain Research Station

Wildfire Management Systems Team, National Fire Decision Support Center