Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name

Forest and Conservation Science

Department or School/College

W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation

Committee Chair

Carl Seielstad

Commitee Members

Brady Allred, Andrew Larson, Helen Naughton, Laurie Yung


decision support, fire management, geographic area, relative risk assessment, WFDSS


University of Montana


Since the turn of the 21st century, the complexity and costs of wildfires have increased substantially. There is a need to evaluate entrenched fire management practices that encourage status quo decision making to suppress fires. Data stored in mandated reporting systems collected during wildfires may provide a perspective on fire management decision-making needed to change wildfire governance structures. The Relative Risk Assessment (RRA) resides within a federally mandated workflow process necessary for all longer duration federal wildfires since 2010. Land managers rate hazard, probability and values at risk as high, moderate or low throughout the course of an incident to define wildfire risk as a precursor to strategy. 5,087 published risk assessments were evaluated to provide a snapshot of the how land managers characterize risk from every geographic area (GA) in the United States. Results suggest that most GAs have a tendency to select moderate relative risk; however, two unique regions warranted greater inspection. The Northwest utilizes high risk more than any other geographic area; and the Southwest opts for low risk. Following a mixed method explanatory research design, these GAs became the basis for exploring factors influencing high and low risk by coding qualitative text belonging to the RRA. Investigation of a 20% sample of wildfires from these regions provided finer specificity of the values at risk, hazard, and probability concerns emerging during wildfires. Results suggest that climate plays a pivotal role to lessen the impact of the fire environment in the Southwest and generally increases the severity of the fire environment in the Northwest. When risk is low, land managers exercised greater decision space by using a variety of strategies. High risk constrains decision space and managers opt for suppression strategies. Subsequently, the Southwest is poised to benefit from favorable climate to use more fire and there is mounting evidence that a patchwork of historical wild and prescribed fires are leading to greater decision space for the management of current wildfires by serving as barriers to fire spread. However, suppression strategies were the most common for both GAs suggesting challenges remain for the use of fire to achieve resource objectives.



© Copyright 2019 Erin Kathleen Noonan-Wright