To burn or not to burn: governance of wildfires in Australia

Sarah Clement, Ahjond Garmestani, Jo Ann Beckwith, Pele J. Cannon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Globally, wildfires are increasing in extent, frequency, and severity. Although global climate change is a major driver and large-scale governance interventions are essential, focusing on governance at smaller scales is of great importance for fostering resilience to wildfires. Inherent tensions in managing wildfire risk are evident at such scales, as objectives and mandates may conflict, and trade-offs and impacts vary across ecosystems and communities. Our study feeds into debates about how to manage wildfire risk to life and property in a way that does not undermine biodiversity and amenity values in social-ecological systems. Here, we describe a case study where features of adaptive governance emerged organically from a dedicated planning process for wildfire governance in Australia. We found that a governance process that is context specific, allows for dialogue about risk, benefits, and trade-offs, and allows for responsibility and risk to be distributed amongst many different actors, can provide the conditions needed to break down rigidity traps that constrain adaptation. The process enabled actors to question whether the default risk management option (in this case, prescribed burning) is aligned with place-based risks and values so they could make an informed choice, built from their participation in the governance process. Ultimately, the community supported a move away from prescribed burning in favor of other wildfire risk management strategies. We found that the emergent governance system has many features of adaptive governance, even though higher level governance has remained resistant to change. Our study offers positive insights for other governments around the world interested in pursuing alternative strategies to confronting wildfire risk.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024


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