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Blog Post · July 8, 2024

Does Managed Retreat Make Sense in Wildfire-Prone Lands?

photo - Southern California brush fire near houses

The concept of “managed retreat” originated in coastal areas that are dealing with sea level rise. Now, the term is increasingly used in discussions around wildfire, so we asked two researchers, UCLA’s Dr. Liz Koslov and The University of British Columbia’s Dr. Kathryn McConnell, to tell us more.

“Managed retreat” is a thorny topic in many circles. Can you describe what managed retreat means, and why you’re both studying it now?

Liz Koslov: Managed retreat refers to moving people and built infrastructure away from hazards and intentionally repurposing land. Sometimes I talk about managed retreat as a process of relocating people, unbuilding land, and—in theory, at least—restoring habitat in places exposed to environmental and climate risks. Depending on how it’s conceived and enacted, it does not necessarily mean abandoning home, community, or an attachment to place, though that’s often how it’s portrayed.

I started thinking about managed retreat after Hurricane Sandy in New York. Property owners on Staten Island’s East Shore—one of the recurrently flooded parts of the city—started organizing; hundreds mobilized to advocate for buyouts so they could retreat from the coast and the government could permanently demolish their neighborhoods and turn the land back into wetlands.

When I got questions about how this might apply to debates around rebuilding after wildfires, I didn’t know the context. Then I connected with Kathryn.

Kathryn McConnell: Wildfires have always been a part of the Idaho landscape where I grew up. As fires have grown more severe, questions have emerged around how to live safely in wildfire-prone places. I was doing work on fire, wildfire impacts on housing and subsequent displacement, and housing, and I kept getting questions about what managed retreat would mean for fires.

We’re developing a working definition of managed retreat in the context of fire. First, it could mean individual residents or entire communities preemptively relocating away from fire-prone places. Second, it could mean limiting reconstruction in places where a wildfire destroyed buildings. Third, it could mean infrastructural retreat. One form of fire-specific retreat, for example, is to change the configuration of powerlines rather than remove housing.

The work we’ve published so far argues for conducting more research on whether and where retreat could be an effective, equitable response. In many situations, we think that retreat is very likely not an appropriate adaptation to wildfire.

We also need to differentiate retreat from displacement and disinvestment. For example, certain home insurers are increasing rates or ending coverage—it’s important to make clear that this is withdrawal, not an intentional investment to support retreat.

How does managed retreat play out differently in coastal versus wildfire ecosystems? 

LK: There are big differences in how retreat may play out in each scenario. For one thing, a flood buyout is an economic transaction at one moment in time. The homeowner sells, and then the land is often left unmanaged. The political optics aren’t great—it’s expensive and what’s left looks abandoned. But even if the land isn’t actively repurposed, there’s a sense that you’ve reduced risk by reducing exposure: you’ve enabled people to move out of a floodplain and increased open space that can absorb and buffer stormwater.

The same cannot be said for wildfire—the potential impact of creating more unmanaged open space is huge. For instance, research has found that the depopulation of rural, agricultural regions and subsequent land abandonment in Mediterranean regions of Europe during the mid-twentieth century resulted in more severe wildfires due to fuel buildup.

KM: Another difference is the sheer spatial scale of exposure. One recent fire risk estimate projects that around 44 million houses are situated in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) across the US. For comparison, there are an estimated 9-15 million housing units in high flood risk zones. That’s an enormous spatial scale. Retreat is just one tool in a larger toolkit of possible adaptations.

The idea of managed retreat from fires has been advanced in popular media in concerning ways—in particular, certain writing on this topic has assumed that rural communities are in decline and that urban living is better than rural living. We want to think critically about those narratives.

What policies might help ease the transition for California’s communities—and communities around the nation?

KM: In recent years, we’ve seen substantial investment in fuels reduction on wildlands. I was excited to see a recent report calling for additional investment in the built environments where people live. That could be incredibly useful in addressing burning not just on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land but also where fire comes into contact with built neighborhoods.

LK: The wildland buffer project in Paradise, California is a great example. The Paradise Recreation and Park District is working to acquire land sold by people whose homes were destroyed in the fire to create a protective firebreak. The idea is to help people stay there more safely, while also doing some retreat and land repurposing.

Affordable, safe housing is important. As a society, we want to enable collective, community-led planning and resettlement—and invest in where people might go or stay.


climate change Forests and Fires Housing Water, Land & Air wildfires