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Research Highlights

Individual Highlight

Wildfire Decision Making

Photo of Snapshot : Fire management training and tools can be improved through understanding potential biases impacting wildfire management decisions.Managing wildfire events requires complex decision making in the context of uncertainty. This work demonstrates the need for supporting education and tools to assist managers in overcoming decision making heuristics common to risk situations. Of special interest are those decision patterns that adversely impact long-term ecosystem health.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Winter, Patricia L.  
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2011
Highlight ID : 372


Wildfire events are increasing in risk, intensity, and cost attributed to social (for example development in the wildland urban interface) and environmental change (for example climate change). This research informs the understanding of how risk-based decisions surrounding wildfire management are affected by experience-based heuristics (potential biases). Line officers and incident personnel in the Forest Service participated in an online experiment involving fire management scenarios. Findings showed that participants exhibited loss aversion, being more likely to choose a safe alternative among management options. They also focused more on decisions that reduced short-term rather than long-term risk. This tendency was less pronounced among experienced fire decision-makers. However, those with more experience were also more likely to go with the status quo, which was typically suppression. The clear need for supporting tools and education to overcome these often-found patterns in the larger field of risk management is highlighted. Some of these findings can be understood in light of factors external to the decision maker, such as pressure to suppress or extinguish a fire because of concerns over impacts on air quality.

Fire management policy changes across federal agencies and an increasingly educated and informed public regarding wildfire management promise to augment manager education and decision-making tools in improving rational decision-making that incorporates long term ecosystem health.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Robyn S. Wilson and Timothy Ascher, The Ohio State UniversityLynn A. Maguire, Duke University

Program Areas