by: Genny Biggs, Kate Dargan Marquis

Outliers don’t always remain that way. Sometimes, the unimaginable becomes imaginable, then, more frequently experienced, and then, even normal.

Previously unimaginable wildfires, now painfully believable, and more often experienced, are why the Moore Foundation launched its new Wildfire Resilience Initiative. We recognize a shared sense of urgency as more communities face what has long been inconceivable. We see the potential to accelerate science and innovation, and the importance of traditional knowledge and fire stewardship, as we collectively work to alter that trajectory enough to keep catastrophic wildfire from becoming normal.

In many places, fire is an essential, vitalizing force – for communities, landscapes, and a diversity of species that need fire for all the cultural and ecological benefits it confers. Fire, like rain, can vary in intensity – sometimes gentle and sometimes excessive. “Good rain” is a necessary element for plants to flourish, rivers to flow, and cities to exist. In the same way, “good fire” has a place in the natural order too, but wildfire has become a human enemy as we’ve suffered its destructive impacts.

Catastrophic harm ensues for human and natural communities when big, fast, severe fires happen in a hotter and drier world that has been subject to vast land-use changes. We recently watched historic and devastating impacts come to light in West Maui, with loss of life and community anguish that had been unfathomable.  

We also know the debt and future interest we incur when we exclude fire from the ecosystems that need it for their natural function. Here in the early 21st century, we’ve seemingly wedged ourselves into a dire situation. But there is a path to wildfire resilience, and we believe that philanthropy has a role it can play in helping get there faster.

Leveraging expertise in wildfire and philanthropy

How do we know? Kate Dargan Marquis has spent the last 45 years in the wildfire arena learning that what we once took for granted was skewed.

She started out in 1977 as an 18-year old young woman seasonal firefighter for what was then California Department of Forestry, now is known as CAL FIRE. Over the years of a challenging, beautiful, and life-changing career, her perspective on fire evolved, coming to recognize that what appeared to be the enemy, wasn’t. That we humans were creating the problems and conditions for these ever larger and tougher fires. She rose in rank and became the State Fire Marshal for California and helped create legislation and building codes to improve those conditions, created nonprofits to help get communities engaged in fire mitigations, founded a tech company to bring better, faster data to firefighters, even joined the White House for a short time to advise on wildfire policy.

“Having thought about this problem for 45 years,” she says, “many of the resulting ideas have shaped what the Moore Foundation is seeking to change over the next several years.”

And how can philanthropic support make a difference, and help turn those ideas into measurable change? Genny Biggs reflects, “Gordon and Betty Moore have asked that their foundation ‘tackle large, important issues at a scale where it can achieve significant and measurable impacts’ and ‘durable change.’ Wildfire is one of these issues that needs to be tackled at scale — fire spread doesn’t stop at lines we’ve drawn on a map, and the complex factors driving wildfire today aren’t isolated in neat geographic pockets either.”

Harnessing all of the momentum and fractured efforts that different groups and actors have committed to this challenge requires a long-term perspective to bring about durable change. With adaptive management and a scientific approach we will learn more about and navigate what the coming years of fire incidence and behavior have in store and understand how best to prioritize and implement upstream solutions.

Scaling solutions that make a difference

With the Moores’ aspirations and their foundation’s approach in mind, and with Kate’s experience and networks across the fire spectrum, we have heard experts call for measurable, large-scale, lasting change in the way we manage fire. That means:

  • Improving early fire detection and tracking, so we see fires earlier, within 15 minutes, and know what to do about them — to let good fire burn when and where it should, and to respond quickly, safely, and effectively when our communities and ecosystems are at risk.
  • Knowing which mitigations will matter most, to lessen the burden of smoke and to disrupt direct fire pathways into communities and within them from structure to structure — and then planning, implementing, and sustaining those mitigations at the county scale so vulnerable communities can co-exist with the fires of the future.
  • Learning what 21st century ecosystem stewardship needs to entail, through predictive fire ecology to inform – and be informed by – rapid and synthetic implementation at the watershed scale.

What’s the alternative? If we don’t work together to make this happen, we are at risk of incinerating our western landscapes and strangling our source watersheds. We can trace this part of the challenge back to 1910, the year of the Big Burn. That’s the start of the era of fire exclusion, and it was intimately tied to the way we valued and harvested timber.  For the past century, we sought primarily to exclude fire from the environment, and saw almost all wildfire as detrimental. But that was, clearly, a failed strategy.

Kate remembers, “During one of the phases of my  years as a wildfire fighter, I served as the Grass Valley Air Attack Officer – a job that puts two people, a pilot (mine was Raybo, his pilot handle) and a firefighter (me) inside a fast, small observation plane to make sure all the busy airspace over a fire is kept safe and to help provide intel to the firefighters on the ground. Flying over hundreds of fires over those years and seeing how big, severe fires rolled over mountains and communities convinced me that we were losing the strategic battle.”

Firefighters are warriors and heroes in those hot, dirty, dangerous moments, but that’s the tactical battle part of firefighting. The strategic problem is that we keep on using the same solutions that start with the assumption that all fire is to be attacked, suppressed, extinguished, and eliminated.

Over the years, we have come to learn and believe that the harm we are mitigating with that ‘any fire is a bad fire’ strategy is in turn causing even greater loss, damage, and consequence. When we look at wildfire from a science, technology, humanistic, and social perspective, we see the worsening fires that are continuing to outpace our capabilities to manage. 

It’s a terribly complex and long-term problem made worse by the effects of climate change that put wildfire at the forefront of our planet’s shift to too much atmospheric heat. But for all the sticky complexity, we can see our way to a change in strategic approach.

We can imagine the unimaginable, we can begin to believe that we can co-exist with wildfire as we must with other hazards. It won’t work if it’s not a collective effort, and that will require a shared long-term vision and alignment across public and private sectors.

Imagining a resilient future

Philanthropy is just one small piece of the puzzle — but we have the ability through grantmaking and convening to help chart a sound course and accelerate, test, and scale solutions. Our grantees are already scouting promising pathways, informed by science and traditional knowledge, spurring them by aligning incentives and accelerating them through innovation, testing and tracking the results with meaningful metrics, and we aim to support pilots that show how this can all come together in watersheds and in counties for replicability.

That’s why, despite projections for a more fiery future in western North America and around the globe, we do see seeds of hope — germinating in the work that so many are already doing and plan to do.

In the years to come, we want to be able to change our language from wildfire war to adaptation.

  • We can imagine communities safely co-existing with and welcoming low-severity fire for the benefits it brings to forests, wildlife, biodiversity, water, and air.
  • We can willingly trade the inconveniences of lower-level smoke and work harder and better at protecting people from bad smoke.
  • We can better understand fire behavior and fire-adapted ecosystems can experience more of the fire they need.
  • Our firefighters can be life-saving and property-protecting heroes one month, and experienced, knowledgeable “firelighters” the next, as they steward good fire with intention.
  • Our communities can have forest crews that operate like our road and parks crews: at work creating evacuation corridors along with strategically placed landscape treatments and community safe zones.
  • Satellites and aircraft can relay in-the-moment information about where every fire is, every minute, and we will know where fire is burning in a good fire manner or is turning into bad fire and needs to be extinguished immediately.

So here’s another outlier: we can imagine a world where, someday, we can embrace good fire, and wildfire is no longer a force we have to fear.  


Genny Biggs is the Program Director for the Wildfire Resilience Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


Kate Dargan Marquis is a senior advisor for the Wildfire Resilience Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Help us spread the word.

If you know someone who is interested in this field or what we are doing at the foundation, pass it along.

Get Involved

Related Stories