Two wildland fire research papers were recently published in the latest Society of American Foresters Journal of Forestry (March 2012, Volume 110, Number 2). The first is an economic study that looks at suppression strategies on federal wildland fire expenditures (Gebert & Black, 2012) and the second is a qualitative study on community wildfire risk perceptions (Gordon, Luloff & Stedman, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the magnitude of fire management expenditures has increased considerably. In the first study, Gebert and Black test the underlying assertion that the use of less aggressive suppression strategies for wildland fires may constrain the rising costs of emergency wildland fire expenditures. The authors analyzed 1,330 wildland fires as reported by US Forest Service and US Department of Interior for fiscal years 2006 to 2008. What they found was that management objectives and strategies do affect costs, but the results vary by both agency and by the cost metric used. The authors indicate that less aggressive protection strategies may result in a lower cost per acre or cost per day; however the increased acreages associated with the less aggressive strategy may lead to a total fire management cost that is greater than or equal to more aggressive protection strategies. The study showed that less aggressive strategies do lead to more acres burned today. How this affects the ecological objectives today and tomorrow, and whether this leads to less fire and lower costs in the future is an important question that warrants further research. Another important consideration to be explored is firefighter safety and how that is impacted by a less or more aggressive fire protection strategy.
Trying to understand public wildfire risk perception is increasingly important as the wildland-urban interface (WUI) continues to expand. These perceptions are influenced by ecological, economic and socio-demographic factors including low-density housing, second home development, local values and norms and the strength of public services. Research on factors motivating collective mitigation of wildfire risk is central to addressing information and education needs of WUI stakeholders. For natural resource managers, understanding risk perception is important as it influences resident risk reduction strategies and increases hazard mitigation.
In the second paper, Gordon, Luloff & Stedman compare community wildfire risk perceptions among five areas in the eastern United States: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Counties within these areas were selected on socioeconomic, biophysical and wildfire-prone criteria. The survey participants were asked several questions related to risk awareness and concern; wildfire exposure and experience; and social factors. The authors conclude that despite the federal designation of wildfire risk, most participants in the study said their communities were relatively unconcerned about wildfire. In Maine and West Virginia the wildfire risk was perceived as unimportant due to the ‘low intensity’ of the fires they experience. In Pennsylvania, the perception of higher risk was driven by the fact that there is rapid in-migration of urban residents into the WUI. While the levels of risk perception were greatest among the survey respondents from Minnesota, the research found that over half of those surveyed were unconcerned about wildfire due to apathy, a culture of independence and a contentious relationship with government. The authors conclude that clear, constant and consistent messaging about fire risk and the creation of opportunities for civic involvement is a more successful strategy than one that communicates biophysical vulnerabilities via occasional lectures and limited public involvement.
Happily, the Firewise Communities/USA® national recognition program provides a simple process to engage citizens in wildfire safety action at the neighborhood level, using clear, constant and consistent messages and a ‘bottom-up’ or grassroots approach.