Interdisciplinary research group uses science to inform community wildfire mitigation programs
By Nancy D. Lamontagne
With tens of thousands of wildfires sparked each year, wildfire is a fast-growing risk to communities across the United States. The damage wildfires cause to homes and the costs of containing these fires are expected to rise sharply as climate change and land use patterns put ever more communities in the path of danger.
Since 2012, the Colorado-based Wildfire Research (WiRē) group has been helping to make fire-prone communities safer by applying scientific data to tailor wildfire education and outreach programs to better meet local needs, beliefs and attitudes. The interdisciplinary team of experts in economics, sociology and wildfire risk mitigation works together to find a better way for scientists to collaborate with those running on-the-ground wildfire prevention programs or creating fire-related policies.
“We tackle assumptions about what’s happening in fire-prone communities by converting them into questions that can be asked and tested,” said WiRē member Hannah Brenkert-Smith, Ph.D., an environmental socialist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “The data we gather provide insights that allow wildfire education and outreach programs to do their work in ways that are informed by science.”
Answering community questions
The WiRē group uses assessments to gauge the wildfire risk for individual private properties and pairs these with homeowner surveys that gather data about attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to wildfire risk and its management. The team then uses these data to answer questions posed by communities, wildfire councils and people who run wildfire education programs.
“We find out what assumptions these practitioners want to tackle and then look to the data for answers to help them assess whether the assumptions are valid,” said Brenkert-Smith. “We don’t just give them results; we craft our reports and outreach materials in ways that are directly useful to their programmatic needs.”
Wildfire mitigation programs generally operate on extremely limited budgets, making it crucial for them to make every dollar count by being as impactful as possible. “With these data, we’re better able to understand the issues and how to address them so that educational and outreach efforts can be tailored in a way that helps ensure they have a greater chance of being implemented,” said WiRē member Chris Barth, a fire mitigation and education specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. “Changing beliefs on the ground can lead to communities that are more adapted to fire.”
The WiRē group’s approach was successfully used in the Town of Mountain Village, Colorado, to address the town council and community leaders’ belief that residents weren’t willing to cut down trees to reduce wildfire risk. The WiRē group’s research showed that most residents were actually willing to cut down trees to reduce wildfire risk, but felt they couldn’t do so because of rules and regulations enforced by homeowner associations.
“In asking the questions and having local data, the town council was able to rethink the story of what is happening in their community,” explained Brenkert-Smith. “The barrier they thought existed wasn’t actually backed by the survey responses from community residents, and they identified a barrier that they could take concrete steps to address. The entire story about what was happening in their community changed, and pathways for how to work on the issue in their community opened up.”
The WiRē group has also helped dispel myths regarding homeowner’s insurance. “We often hear that insurance companies are coming to fire-prone areas and speaking with landowners or even canceling insurance in fire-prone areas,” said Barth. “In the communities that we’ve looked at, we see that most homeowners aren’t aware of any effect wildfire risk has on their insurance policies or any actions that are planned by insurance companies. What we hear and what is actually happening is different as it relates to insurance.”
The findings about homeowner’s insurance support the WiRē group’s overall finding that a multitude of social factors often influence whether people will take action to reduce their risk. In other words, one size doesn’t fit all. “We hope to continue to chip away at the assumptions and create a more nuanced story of the factors that are really influencing what’s happening on the ground,” said Brenkert-Smith.
The WiRē group is now working on guidance documents that will help formalize their procedures to make it easier for other practitioners to apply their approaches. The group is also beginning to broaden the scope of their work. While most of their past research has used data from individual households, they are now looking to gather data at larger scales to understand how other factors such as community prevention programs and the surrounding landscape might affect what individuals do to mitigate wildfire risk on private properties.
“Considering the fact that wildfires are expected to increase in frequency and severity, we know that it’s imperative that communities move toward mitigating their risk,” said Brenkert-Smith. “We can ask questions at the microscopic scale about attitudes and beliefs, pan out to look at behaviors and social interactions, and then examine the social context at the community level. We hope our research can help foster understanding along this continuum.”
Nancy D. Lamontagne is a freelance science communicator and a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.