Ecologist Helps Redefine Our Perspective On Forest Fires

By: Devin Reese
October 27, 2019
Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Fireweed, a flower that dominates after wildfires in many western landscapes, is seen here 10 years after the 2006 Gash Creek Fire in western Montana. Photo by Philip Higuera.
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Philip Higuera is an associate professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, where he teaches courses in fire management and environmental change. His research in the PaleoEcology and Fire Ecology Lab focuses on the relationships between climate, vegetation, and fire activity. As part of a university faculty team, Higuera fosters collaboration between community members, policy makers, and land managers to define “resilience to wildfires,” based on human values and the best fire ecology science.

DR: Could you tell me about your lab?

Philip Higuera

Higuera: My overall goal is to understand how climate variability and climate change affects ecosystems through wildfire activity. The PaleoEcology and Fire Ecology Lab reflects my graduate training in paleoecology -- i.e., ecology over long time periods. Fire is one of the variable processes that doesn’t happen that often in many ecosystems, requiring perspectives longer than a human lifespan to fully understand. Fire is very sensitive to climate change and has a big impact on the vegetation and ecosystems we see today.

DR: Why did you become a fire ecologist?

Higuera: As an undergraduate, I was broadly interested in how the natural world works. I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where my advisors influenced me to study disturbances, phenomena that make forests change quickly. I began to study debris slides in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and became fascinated with discrete events, things that happen suddenly and appear dramatic to humans.

When I started grad school in the west, I began to think about western forests and boreal forests in Alaska, and in these areas, fire is a major natural ecological disturbance. Living in the west, it’s hard not to pay attention to fire.

DR: How did your interdisciplinary interest in humans and fire come about?

Higuera: For fifteen years, I mostly focused on understanding the biophysical drivers and ecological impacts of fire. During 2017, an intense fire year for this region, I started to get lots of media requests asking me to provide science context. While there are plenty of ecological questions left, I realized that we have an urgent challenge in understanding human perspectives on fire.

DR: I understand that you have spearheaded community efforts in this area.

Higuera: Yes, our research team at the University of Montana ran a workshop this year to bring together land managers and community leaders for a conversation about fire. We discussed how people ensure timber, clean air, recreation, or other valued services survive in the face of fire. The key message that came out was that, while wildfires can have dramatic impacts on landscapes, human values determine whether the changes are desired or dreaded. This simple recognition requires people to clearly articulate what they value from our landscapes. In many cases, we find that allowing some fires to burn are an important way to support those values.

DR: Do you expect to hold more of these workshops?

Higuera: Yes, what impressed me was that the fire success stories all hinged on having healthy, trusting relationships and conversations among community members before fire events occur. Communities must work together to identify what they value and how that interacts with fire. The science is necessary but not sufficient to learn how to live with wildfire.

DR: How are fires today different than in the past?

Higuera: Increasingly, fires turn into disasters because humans are developing in fire-prone landscapes, and climate change is upping the ante by making each year more conducive to widespread and extreme fire activity. In some areas, a build-up of vegetation (“fuel”) from decades of fire suppression also makes contemporary fires more extreme than they would have been in the past.

DR: What do you worry about most in our current fire management regimes?

Higuera: First and foremost, I worry that we don’t accept fire as an inevitable process that will occur in most of the landscapes we live in, and that we don’t recognize how some fires actually support the things we value. Enacting policy under the belief that we can eliminate fire has very dangerous implications; such a perspective has failed for more than 100 years.

DR: How would you characterize our attitudes about fire?

Higuera: In our culture, the dominant view of fire is still that it is bad and should be stopped. Consider how Smokey Bear, one of the best advertising campaigns ever, has promoted the idea that humans are the only cause of fire, and that there won’t be fire if we’re not careless.

DR: Do we need a Smokey Bear 2.0 campaign?

Higuera: Yes, Smokey Bear with a drop torch, the tool that practitioners use for prescribed fire! Smokey would recognize that we need fire and cannot just shut it out.

DR: Do you learn something special by being on a site during an active fire?

Higuera: Yes! What is most surprising is how variably fire burns across the landscape. Media shows the most extreme fire activity, perpetuating the idea that all fire is terrible and ruins ecosystems. In fact, most wildfires are a patchwork of areas where fire burns intensely, intermixed with areas where it burns less intensely or not at all. The variability allows ecosystems to recover naturally, as they have in the past. For example, within most fires, there are pockets of live trees within a few hundred feet of most burned areas, which provide seeds to reseed the burned areas. When you see an active fire burning, you realize that fire does not destroy an ecosystem. Several weeks later, grasses are re-sprouting.

DR: What’s the biggest emerging challenge?

Higuera: We’ve to better understand how climate change is going to impact fire activity and how ecosystems are going to respond to burning. We are quickly going to get into a situation where we need to triage, and science will help us figure out where to spend our resources. This, of course, also requires a really challenging conversation with community members, managers, and policymakers, who will ultimately decide how to balance different sets of values.  Many of these issues would still be on the table in the absence of climate change, but climate change is putting us face-to-face with fire more frequently, and often under more extreme circumstances than in the past.

DR: Any advice to young people thinking about pursuing a career in this area?

Higuera: There are many avenues to arrive at studying fire ecology, and fire science in general, so my advice would be to follow your curiosity and what makes you excited. Fire is a much bigger topic than just fire ecology; it’s about natural resources in general, public health, social equity, tourism, and recreation. There are many opportunities in federal and state government, because we spend a lot of money managing wildfires. I hope that some of my students will work in these agencies, and help influence how society interacts with fire in the future.

DR: If you could leave three key messages with us about fire ecology, what would they be?


  1. We live on a flammable planet and fire is inevitable, given that Earth has experienced fire for 420 million years;
  2. given ongoing and predicted climate change, we are increasingly face-to-face with negative impacts of fire on humans, but it’s critical to remember that fire serves important functions that support many things that we value;
  3. and given this reality, we need to identify areas where we can let fire exist “naturally,” versus areas where we are going to fight fire and modify the role it plays because of its negative impacts on human lives.

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 10/27/19
Updated: 08/16/22
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