U.S. Joint Fire Science Program


Date of this Version


Document Type



JFSP ID # 10-3-01-7


US government work.


In this research we sought answers to 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) promotes 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 biophysical conditions necessary for fire-adapted human communities, they offer little insight into the social elements that promote or sustain adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity refers to the individual and collective resources, capabilities, and actions that alleviate the risk or impacts of disturbances such as wildland fire, and support individual and community adaptive behaviors in response to changing conditions (Adger and Vincent 2005). More succinctly, adaptive capacity is a community’s ability to mobilize resources with a goal of adapting to change driven by events such as wildland fire (Nelson et al. 2007). In this project we improved our understanding of how the notion of adaptive capacity can be fruitfully applied to the problem of at-risk WUI communities. We sought advice from emergency managers, local stakeholders, and our colleagues working in the natural resources and hazards social sciences. We found that adaptive capacity is composed of a set of overt and latent characteristics that are mobilized by catalysts to adapt to disturbances, including wildland fire. We developed a model that begins to identify the social characteristics of adaptive capacity for wildfire. Finally, we suggest that more research is needed to (1) define social elements that are consistent across locales and disturbances, (2) understand how structure impedes or facilitates adaptive capacity, (3) integrate social characteristics of adaptive capacity into tools to assess the impacts of wildland fire, and (4) identify catalysts of adaptive capacity and the potential roles of different actors in adapting to living with wildland fire.