Solving for wildfire disasters: a lecture to MIT students

Blog Post created by michelesteinberg Employee on May 5, 2020

How do you solve a wicked problem? That was the question I posed to a classroom of MIT undergrads during an early-April virtual class taught by my friend Cherie Miot Abbanat, a lecturer at the university’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning. Cherie’s spring semester is focused on exploring policy and planning solutions to real-world environmental and social problems – including what I call the “wicked problem” of wildfire disasters. If I’d ever worried that I’d make people depressed talking about my favorite subject, it was nice to know that my lecture was helping them focus on something NOT virus-related.


Barely a month after I’d characterized the wildfire disaster problem as a wicked problem – something multi-causal, socially complex, and with impacts and solutions that don’t fit neatly into one or two disciplines – to a diverse group of experts at the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s WUI Resilience Workshop in San Francisco, I was posing this question to curious and clever college students from the comfort of my home office. Although the MIT campus is just a few miles from my Boston-area home, the students come from all over, including wildfire hotspots as far-flung as southern California and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.


We discussed the current policy context, including policies driving federal and state land management and natural resources protection, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, and the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. After providing some basics on how the US manages fire, we talked about the growing magnitude of wildfire disasters – incidents where wildfires move from forests and rangelands into subdivisions and towns, creating enormous property loss, and increased loss of life. We discussed what’s missing from the policy context – with one major element the lack of wildfire risk analysis in local land use plans, and the failure to address wildfire in most local and state building codes and ordinances.


Questions ranged from the challenges (and failures) of a response-oriented approach, to what places are doing better with building codes and land use planning, to the need for more education of planning professionals and local government officials. I was encouraged by the engagement of these young people, who will be our future policymakers, designers, architects, planners, enforcers, and leaders. As always, I am grateful to Cherie and her counterparts at other universities for giving me a chance to interact with these amazing young people. Our wicked, gnarly, nasty problem of wildfire disasters can be solved, and the beginning of that solution is grappling with the problem in a learning mindset.


Image credit: Fire Modeling Institute of the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station - using FAMWEB ICS 209 databases, June 2017