Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Should I stay or should I go? Understanding why homeowners evacuate (or don’t)

COLORADO — With longer fire seasons and increases in populations living in fire-prone ecosystems, it is important to understand what motivates homeowners in their decisions to evacuate or stay in place. A new study led by Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station social scientist Sarah McCaffrey sheds light on the different values that influence homeowner choices during wildfire evacuations.

Homeowners in the study were from three wildfire-prone communities representing different regions of the country: South Carolina, Texas and Washington. The study found that most people fall into two main groups — those who evacuate early and those who stay behind and defend their property. Members of both groups fell into a larger, third category — wait and see. Those who evacuate early tend to rely on official cues, such as evacuation orders from local fire officials, to take action. However, the study also found that a large number of people rely on a combination of both official and physical cues, such as seeing wildfire flames, before determining whether they will evacuate or stay to defend their property. Helping those who wait and rely on physical cues to better interpret the level of threat posed by the smoke or flames they see could help them make safer decisions.

The perception of the effectiveness of a particular action in protecting their life or property influenced the homeowners’ decisions. Those who felt evacuation was an effective protective action were more likely to evacuate and those who felt defending their property was effective were more likely to stay. Tolerance for risk also influenced their choices. People who were generally risk tolerant tended to stay to defend their property. One finding in the study showed that people who were financially risk tolerant were more likely to evacuate early, suggesting that one reason some people may stay and defend is because they do not feel they can financially risk losing their home.

McCaffrey states, “The research shows that we need to move away from the perception that there is one correct decision for people to make in these circumstances and instead understand that people have different reasons and values that inform their evacuation decisions. By taking this into account we can work more effectively with homeowners to ensure they make the safest decision given their circumstances.”

Photo: A hill full of burned trees. The hill overlooks, and is very close to, a residential community.
Results of fire in the wildland-urban interface. Photo courtesy Kari Greer, National Interagency Fire Center.