The Role of Adaptive Capacity in Creating Fire Adapted Human Communities

Project Partners: 

Project Summary:

In this proposal we seek to answer the question:  What are the social characteristics and conditions of human communities that promote adaptive capacity for wildfire?  The Quadrennial Fire Review (USDA and USDI 2009) identifies a goal of “achieving fire adapted communities” in the wildland urban interface (WUI), and identifies metrics for determining whether a community is fire adapted.  While these metrics address some of the bio-physical conditions necessary for fire adaptive human communities, they offer little insight into the social elements that promote or sustain adaptive capacity.  Adaptive capacity has been identified as a component of hazard resilience which mediates a community’s vulnerability to hazards such as flooding, earthquakes, and global climate change.  What we are proposing here is research to develop a better understanding of how the notion of adaptive capacity can be fruitfully applied to the problem of at risk WUI communities. Any model or hypotheses develop here will require future empirical testing and modification in light of such testing.


  1. Synthesize literature from natural hazards, political ecology, and global climate change to identify the social elements of adaptive capacity and their importance to achieving fire adapted human communities.
  2. Review documents from communities involved in the Firewise Communities USA program, Fire Safe Councils, or community wildfire protection planning to ascertain conditions that contribute to a fire adapted human communities.
  3. Design a model linking conditions that define a fire adapted human community and those that enhance adaptive capacity.
  4. Suggest hypotheses for future testing. 
  5. Propose at least the starting point for rapid assessment tools that will consider and begin to measure the social elements of adaptive capacity.


The body of literature addressing vulnerability focuses on the inherent characteristics of a system that determine its potential for harm from hazard events (Wisner et al. 2004). In human communities, vulnerability is influenced not only by exposure and biophysical characteristics (i.e. density, building materials, infrastructure), but also by demographic and social characteristics (Cutter et al. 2008). Communities can temper their vulnerability by building resilience, the local capacity to absorb disturbance and reorganize to fully resume necessary functions (Norris et al. 2008).  Resilient communities have the ability to return to the pre-disturbance functioning state or to advance functioning beyond pre-disturbance levels by building the capacity for learning and adaptation (Adger et al. 2005). One vital component of such resilience in human communities is adaptive capacity.  Adaptive capacity is the ability or preconditions of a social system that allows it to adjust to environmental changes through the mobilization of resources (social, economic, organizational) (Nelson et al. 2007).

Adaptive capacity is a concept that has been adopted by a number of disciplines in relation to the resilience of human communities (Cutter et al. 2008; Norris et al. 2008). For instance, studies from political ecology, environmental justice and global climate change conceive of adaptive capacity as an important facet of resilience to change (including hazards). Hazard literature, on the other hand, has more often used the term mitigation as a proxy of adaptive capacity, defining it as any action undertaken to avoid or reduce risk (Cutter et al. 2008).

Efforts to explicitly analyze or assess adaptive capacity in a given social system are still emerging (Adger et al. 2005). Likewise, the majority of efforts to assess vulnerability and/or resilience have not fully accounted for the community as an agent of change in actively reducing their exposure (what we are calling adaptive capacity). Understanding and fostering such local action is one of the primary goals focused on here, and encompasses the notions of social capital often mentioned in other hazard frameworks (Paton 2008). Unfortunately efforts to predict or measure the prevalence of such factors given the social context of an area are scarce.

Recent research demonstrates that some classic indicators of hazard exposure and recovery (i.e. high wealth, density of built environment, race) do not apply in the same ways to populations at risk from wildland fire. For instance, although it is estimated that 13 million  WUI residents “lack incomes sufficient to meet basic economic needs, much less the cost of adequate wildfire protection” (Lynn 2003, p. 10), a recent analysis of vulnerability to fire in the White Mountains of Arizona demonstrated that income and housing tenure only weakly correlate to vulnerability (Collins 2009). This analysis also found that long-term residents, full-time residents and those with forest-dependent jobs were less vulnerable to hazards, conclusions that contrast with the notions inherent in many vulnerability assessments. Other work near Vancouver, British Columbia found that those residents most at risk for fire were non-minority and highly advantaged in terms of income and housing (Andrey and Jones 2008).

We contend that an assessment of adaptive capacity should incorporate the collective ability of local people to actively prepare, mitigate and recover from hazards by reducing their vulnerability, and in this project we ask whether and how adaptive capacity contributes to fire adapted human communities.


Uncovering the social factors behind adaptive capacity means: (1) focusing independently on the theoretical relationships between quantifiable indicators (including demographic) and adaptive capacity, rather than assuming they are interchangeable with the forces driving vulnerability (i.e. affluent = more prepared); and (2) recognizing emergent community properties, including interactions/relationships local community members have with one another, place-based knowledge/experience, and ability to access/adapt scientific/technical information to solve local problems.

First, we will review documents from communities involved in the Firewise Communities USA Program, Fire Safe Councils, and/or community wildfire protection planning to develop an initial list of characteristics of fire adapted communities and to refine our model linking elements defining a fire adapted human communities and community capacity to build resiliency and reduce vulnerability to wildland fire.

Although any model developed will ultimately need to be tested in a sample of at-risk communities, the logical next step in developing the aforementioned model is to consult with professionals in emergency services and wildland fire who have experience in dealing with a variety of communities that have faced wildland fire events. Consulting experts is the best way to begin to uncover the social factors related to adaptive capacity of communities to wildland fire because no metric currently exists for such a value, and we want to insure that the less tangible elements of our model are fully considered. We suggest that the experts be identified at the state level because these people are grounded in site specific experiences yet have dealt with a variety of communities and fire emergencies.  Because state structure and agency responsibilities vary, the agencies represented by the experts will likely vary from state to state

We propose convening state-level professionals for a day-long facilitated workshop in one eastern and one western state (yet to be determined).  Discussion will center around the adaptive capacity to wildland fire in particular communities of the given state to better understand the actual behaviors leading to mitigation of wildland fire risk and the social factors that correlate with such collective behaviors. These behaviors and factors will contribute to our definition of fire adapted community.  Finally, we will discuss the types of information that could be gathered to help better assess these social characteristics in a variety of communities.

We will compile and synthesize the results of our document review and the statewide experts’ workshops. We will then convene a workshop of 6 to 10 international scholars from the disaster and hazards fields.  At this workshop we will review and refine the dimensions of community adaptive capacity that the statewide experts identified as particularly important in fire risk situations with an eye toward modeling, quantifying, and assessing elements in a way that would be most useful for policy makers in the allocation of resources to WUI communities.


The investigators will submit a final report to Joint Fire Science and publish a manuscript that describe the model and highlight critical links between adaptive capacity and fire adapted human communities. Potential journal outlets include International Journal of Wildland FireSociety and Natural Resources, and Natural Hazards Review We will also prepare at least two conference presentations from this work , one for fire professionals and one for social scientists.

Budget Table

VII.  Literature cited

Adger, W.N., N.W. Arnell and E.L. Tompkins. 2005b. Successful adaptation to climate change across scales. Global Environmental Change 15: 77-86.

Andrey, J., and B. Jones. 2008. The dynamic nature of social disadvantage: Implications for hazard exposure and vulnerability in Greater Vancouver. The Canadian Geographer 52(2):146-168.

Collins, T.W. 2009. Influences on wildfire hazard exposure in Arizona’s high country. Society and Natural Resources 22: 211-229.

Cutter, S.L., L. Barnes, M. Berry, C. Burton, E. Evans, E. Tate and J. Webb. 2008. A place-based model for understanding community resilience to natural disasters. Global Environmental Change 18:

Lynn, K. 2003. Wildfire and rural poverty: Disastrous connections. Natural Hazards Observer 29: 10-11.

Nelson, D.R., W.N. Adger and K. Brown. 2007. Adaptation to Environmental Change: Contributions of a resilience Framework. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32: 395-419.

Norris, F.H., S.P. Stevens, B. Pfefferbaum, K.F. Wyche, and R.L. Pffefferbaum. 2008. Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology 41: 127-150.

Paton, D. 2008. Community resilience: Integrating individual, community and societal perspectives. In K.

Gow and D. Paton (eds.) The Phoenix of Natural Disasters: Community Resilience. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Paveglio, T.B., P.J. Jakes, M.S. Carroll and D.R. Williams.  2009. Understanding social complexity within the wildland-ruban interface: a new species of human habitation?  Environmental management 43: 1085-1095.

Wisner, B. P. Blaikie, T. Cannon and I. Davis. 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters, 2nd ed. New York: Routeledge.

USDA and USDOI. 2009. Quadrennial Fire and Fuel Report. Assessed September 20, 2009.