NSF awards CSU researchers grant to study wildfire protection planning, community risk

The National Science Foundation has granted over $700,000 to a team of scientists at Colorado State University for a collaborative study with Ohio State University, Portland State University and the University of Michigan. The research will focus on decision-making involving community wildfire protection, the efficacy of risk mitigation and the relationships between local, state and federal actors in wildfire management across Colorado.

CSU researchers from the Warner College of Natural Resources include Jonathan Salerno, assistant professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and Tony Cheng, a professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship who are principal investigators in the project titled “Cognitive, social and institutional dynamics of decision-making in complex hazard-prone environments.”   

Salerno said he believes this research will allow for current collaborations and wildfire risk strategies to be analyzed and help provide a better understanding of the decisionmaking process in wildfire protection. 

“We’re interested in trying to study the whole decisionmaking network, including stakeholders from the levels of individual homeowners to State and Federal agencies, and how decision-making can become more efficient and effective.”

One key element of the study is the process embedded within Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs). CWPPs are planning documents created by stakeholders, such as fire protection districts and HOAs, meant to formalize wildfire risk mitigation planning and action

“The responsibility and resources for mitigating wildfire risk to communities falls on many public and private entities. If the 2020 wildfire has taught us anything, wildfires can spread quickly across landownerships and jurisdictions. Understanding the factors that either facilitate or frustrate how these different entities communicate and coordinate strategies, capacities, and activities with each other is critical to address future wildfire risks.

The findings from the project can also be applied to situations other than wildfire, Salerno said. These include disease prevention, deforestation, flood risk and complexities of climate change.

“By thinking about how governance systems adapt,” Salerno said, “and then applying that to real world context in Colorado and the way people collaborate and respond to wildfire risk, [we can see] how those systems can function to more effectively respond to risk and change.”

The complexities of wildfire 

Three of the largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred last year, and the biological and social implications of these fireare a major component of the need to study how risk mitigation is implemented, and the decision making behind these actions.

Cheng, who also directs the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network, leads teams of researchers and outreach professionals to link the biophysical and social dimensions through wildfire risk assessments and decision support programs. This research project complements Cheng’s teams by bringing governance considerations into the conversation. 

“When researchers and practitioners go through wildfire risk assessments and craft strategic plans to mitigate risk, the governance piece is often missing,” says Cheng.  

 The project team has already begun research on the policy and collaboration processes in CWPPs across the western United States.

Additional researchers include Matt Hamilton and Eric Toman (Ohio State University), Paige Fischer (University of Michigan) and Max Nielsen-Pincus (Portland State University).

The award numbers for this project supported by the National Science Foundation are 2018152 and 2018014.