Wildfires are intensifying due to climate change, and more people are living in regions prone to fire. Understanding how individuals threatened by a wildfire make evacuation decisions – especially those who do not leave promptly – is necessary in order to foster public safety. Homeowners in three communities that have experienced wildfires in the United States were surveyed regarding their responses to evacuation requests.
Homeowners that participated in this study were from three wildfire-prone communities in South Carolina, Texas and Washington. The survey questions addressed factors that influence evacuation decisions, including homeowners’ opinions about how different protective actions, like staying and defending, might protect their valuables, potential cues to evacuate (seeing flames), risk perception, and beliefs about the benefits and drawbacks of evacuation. The study also explored an individual’s tendency to be more or less risk tolerant for different situations. Risk tolerance in evacuation situations has not been previously well-studied.
-Homeowners fell into two general classes: those likely to evacuate and those more likely to stay and defend. Each class included homeowners who do not feel strongly about their initial plan and will wait to see if they want to stick with it.
-Those inclined to leave generally think that evacuation is a good way to limit personal danger while those inclined to stay have higher tolerance for risk and think that they know how to prepare their property.
-Both groups pay attention to official cues (mandatory evacuation orders decrease the odds that an individual will wait and see by 96 percent).
-Wait and see individuals also rely strongly on physical cues, like smoke. Many people, however, do not know how fast fires can spread. Outreach efforts could improve public safety among wait and see homeowners because they could make safer decisions if they are better prepared to interpret threats posed by smoke or flames.
-People that were financially risk tolerant were more likely to evacuate early, suggesting that one reason people might stay and defend is because they do not feel they can financially risk losing their home.