Vulnerability and adaptation to climate-related fire impacts in rural and urban interior Alaska


Sarah F. Trainor, Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks, P.O. Box 755960, Fairbanks, AK 99775-5960, USA. E-mail:


This paper explores whether fundamental differences exist between urban and rural vulnerability to climate-induced changes in the fire regime of interior Alaska. We further examine how communities and fire managers have responded to these changes and what additional adaptations could be put in place. We engage a variety of social science methods, including demographic analysis, semi-structured interviews, surveys, workshops and observations of public meetings. This work is part of an interdisciplinary study of feedback and interactions between climate, vegetation, fire and human components of the Boreal forest social–ecological system of interior Alaska. We have learned that although urban and rural communities in interior Alaska face similar increased exposure to wildfire as a result of climate change, important differences exist in their sensitivity to these biophysical, climate-induced changes. In particular, reliance on wild foods, delayed suppression response, financial resources and institutional connections vary between urban and rural communities. These differences depend largely on social, economic and institutional factors, and are not necessarily related to biophysical climate impacts per se. Fire management and suppression action motivated by political, economic or other pressures can serve as unintentional or indirect adaptation to climate change. However, this indirect response alone may not sufficiently reduce vulnerability to a changing fire regime. More deliberate and strategic responses may be required, given the magnitude of the expected climate change and the likelihood of an intensification of the fire regime in interior Alaska.