USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station
Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
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Research Topics

Recreation: Social Aspects of Fire

Communication of Fire Meanings and Messages

Kevin Larkin (White Mountain NF), Amanda Grau, & Dr. Joe Roggenbuck (Virginia Tech University), in cooperation with Dr. Jim Absher, investigated how people's fire management and prevention cognitions are acquired and/or negotiated. This study looked at the processes through which WUI residents receive, interpret, and reconstruct wildfire messages, especially with respect to educational programs such as Firewise or Smokey Bear. Using a symbolic interactionist perspective and a qualitative, in-depth interview methodology, 17 WUI homeowners and 15 agency representatives in northern Georgia and central Virginia were interviewed.

Different processes exist by which homeowners incorporate the threat of wildfire into their lives. Nearly all accepted the threat of wildfire in their area. They know that fires might burn their homes and significant areas nearby, but many have not chosen to act on that threat. The majority of interviewees had externalized the threat of wildfire, and many felt little responsibility for any aspect of vulnerability minimization and/or fire suppression. The data show, however, that some people reach a point where they internalize, rather than externalize, the fire threat.

In understanding how people come to internalize or externalize the threat, it was found that individual homeowner's perceptions of risk were often different from the risks conveyed by agency education programs, especially in three areas. Human Safety: In wildfire education programs, a homeowners' risk of being trapped without an evacuation route is commonly portrayed, but interviewees seldom brought up a closely related issue, the risk to firefighters' safety. Personal Property: Agency representatives typically make it clear that WUI homes are at risk to be burned. Interviewees accept this risk, but often speak of the contents of their homes. Natural Amenities: Amenity values such as trees, views, or wildlife were addressed by fire professionals. Based on the interviews, the idea of rebuilding a home in a burned-out landscape may be a significant issue.

In summary, having homeowners reach a point of internalizing the wildfire threat is an important step toward increasing Firewise behaviors. To do so, wildfire risk should be stated in terms that are relevant to those homeowners' lives. Although only two southeastern communities were studied and these results may not apply nationwide, these results enhance the existing literature on managing wildfire in the WUI and point to the need for similar studies in order to improve program managers' effectiveness in achieving fire prevention and preparedness goals.

Research conducted by:
Last Modified: Aug 29, 2016 11:04:18 AM