Rethinking Fire With Data Analytics and Systems Design


MIT frameworks are helping the U.S. Forest Service find solutions to fire.

From record-setting fires in the western United States to the devastating and still-blazing bushfires in Australia, it is increasingly apparent that society must forge a new relationship with fire. Factors that include changing climate, expanding human development, and accumulating fuels mean new approaches are needed, and many experts are calling for increasing resiliency by suppressing fewer fires and accelerating forest restoration.

Yes, you read that correctly — suppressing fewer fires.

Scientific evidence that’s been accumulating for decades points to the ways that suppressing fire leads to unhealthy forests. Ongoing research by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows how short-term gain from suppression can condition the landscape for future, even-greater fires burning in extreme conditions, and MIT Sloan Executive Education has had a hand in translating that thinking into action.

Matthew Thompson is a research forester at the U.S. Forest Service, where he works in the Human Dimensions Program at Rocky Mountain Research Station in Colorado and focuses on the human dimension of natural resource problems. An engineer by training, with a PhD from Oregon State University in forest engineering, Thompson has worked with the agency for about a decade. Core to his work is understanding how best to catalyze desired changes in fire manager behavior in terms of individual fire events and over time. He believes that changes in fire manager decisions regarding response strategies and tactics will be necessary to change fire outcomes. To that end, Thompson enrolls in executive education courses whenever time allows to draw insights from the latest thinking at the intersection of management and science.

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