Environmental Management

, Volume 62, Issue 2, pp 210–228 | Cite as

Does Wildfire Open a Policy Window? Local Government and Community Adaptation After Fire in the United States

  • Miranda H. Mockrin
  • Hillary K. Fishler
  • Susan I. Stewart


Becoming a fire adapted community that can coexist with wildfire is envisioned as a continuous, iterative process of adaptation, but it is unclear how communities may pursue adaptation. Experience with wildfire and other natural hazards suggests that disasters may open a “window of opportunity” leading to local government policy changes. We examined how destructive wildfire affected progress toward becoming fire adapted in eight locations in the United States. We found that community-level adaptation following destructive fires is most common where destructive wildfire is novel and there is already government capacity and investment in wildfire regulation and land use planning. External funding, staff capacity, and the presence of issue champions combined to bring about change after wildfire. Locations with long histories of destructive wildfire, extensive previous investment in formal wildfire regulation and mitigation, or little government and community capacity to manage wildfire saw fewer changes. Across diverse settings, communities consistently used the most common tools and actions for wildfire mitigation and planning. Nearly all sites reported changes in wildfire suppression, emergency response, and hazard planning documents. Expansion in voluntary education and outreach programs to increase defensible space was also common, occurring in half of our sites, but land use planning and regulations remained largely unchanged. Adaptation at the community and local governmental level therefore may not axiomatically follow from each wildfire incident, nor easily incorporate formal approaches to minimizing land use and development in hazardous environments, but in many sites wildfire was a focusing event that inspired reflection and adaptation.


Hazard Fire adapted communities Wildland–urban interface Disaster Recovery 



We are indebted to all interviewees for sharing their time and expertise and gratefully acknowledge support from Joint Fire Science Funding Program (award 14-2-01-6) and National Fire Plan funding from the USDA Forest Service (Northern Research Station and Rocky Mountain Research Station). Kathryn Thomason assisted with document review.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

267_2018_1030_MOESM1_ESM.docx (33 kb)
Supplementary Table


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.USDA Forest Service, Northern Research StationBaltimoreUSA
  2. 2.Oregon State University, School of Public PolicyCorvallisUSA
  3. 3.Department of Forest and Wildlife EcologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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