USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station

Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Research Topics Fire Science

Wildland-urban interface and social dynamics

A photo of a sign that says 'in memory of' the address of the home with the burned remains of the home in the background.
Homeowners pay tribute to their beloved home that was destroyed by the 3,100 acre Angora Fire. This human-caused fire, which destroyed 254 homes near the community of South Lake Tahoe, was started by an illegal warming fire. Angora Fire, CA; June 2007. National Park Service photo by J. Michael Johnson.

Wildfires increasingly threaten homes and related structures, especially in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).  The incidence of wildland fires, sometimes with catastrophic results of loss of life and property, is of particular concern in the ever burgeoning suburban, semi-rural, and rural zones.

Increased suburban and rural development and shifting values in these areas adds significant complexity to wildfire management. Researchers have contributed social science that aids understanding of risk perceptions, policy support, Firewise actions, and barriers to improved residential loss prevention.

Fire management can be improved when informed by completed research surrounding the wide array of issues approached through the social sciences.

Perceptions of risk, preferences, intentions, and perceived effectiveness of land management actions affect community preparedness and wildland fire losses. Residents are generally aware of wildfire risks and often take at least minimal risk-mitigation actions while weighing many factors into their decisions to act. However, residents remain concerned about neighbors’ actions and surrounding properties that remain untreated.

Research has noted inconsistencies surrounding awareness of risk, knowledge of actions, and actual behaviors, and modes to align them among residents and some agency personnel alike continue to be an area where additional work is needed. Education plays a part in addressing a gap between concern and knowledge, and the complexities of risk reduction behaviors point to competing values, action-based knowledge, and perceived effectiveness of actions as areas to investigate further. One fruitful area for education efforts among residents seems to focus on improving understanding of the ecological impacts and fire spread beyond their own property.

Community characteristics also seem influential in success of wildfire risk reduction. Informal community organization and action may compel residents to reduce fire risk, however where community connections are looser or where residents are less imbedded in community itself, supportive programming may be an effective intervention tool.

Public-agency interactions are also influenced by relationships and perceptions surrounding them. Relationships with management personnel influence decisions to trust or not trust communications and proposed and actual actions, yet confidence and perceived competence in fire managers also sway public response to varying degrees. Approaches to building and maintaining trust and confidence as well as tools and approaches that help bridge an absence of trust and confidence remain important areas of inquiry, particularly given the dynamic nature of trust and confidence.