Meet Sarah. Sarah is the director of a wildfire council. Part of her job is to help residents and communities be more prepared for wildfire. Sarah has tools and programs that she’s used in the past, but she is wondering if she could be more innovative and effective… Credit: Wildfire Research (WiRē) Team

Asking is Better Than Assuming: Enhancing the Work of Wildfire Practitioners with Social Science

By: WiRē Team

Topic: Communications / Outreach Wildfire risk assessment

Type: Tools / Resources

Wildfire practitioners face the overwhelming challenge of changing the behaviors of residents and the physical conditions of structures and landscapes. Rather than using general recommendations designed for “Anytown, USA,” the Wildfire Research (WiRē) Team believes that an initial investment in understanding a specific community leads to a more effective, relevant approach.

The WiRē Team is a collaborative effort between wildfire researchers and practitioners that uses social science to create innovative approaches to community-level wildfire adaptation. Our collaborative approach ensures that researchers and practitioners contribute equally to the research agenda, methods and questions. Through an iterative process, they also work together to analyze and present the corresponding results.

In addition to an emphasis on collaboration, WiRē advances an improved understanding of the unique characteristics of each community including the hazardous conditions on residential parcels, as well as the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the parcels’ residents. Through pairing parcel-level wildfire risk assessments and social surveys, we develop an understanding of the relationships between the residents’ social characteristics and the conditions of their parcels. This often clarifies the social and biophysical challenges that stand in the way of mitigation activities. While parcel-level wildfire risk assessments have become a common tool, pairing them with social data for an entire community is unique to our approach. Our wildfire risk assessments include collecting data on building materials and vegetation near the home, surrounding fuels and topography, and accessibility for fire suppression services. These data create a parcel-level snapshot in time.

Following the rapid assessment, collaborating practitioners administer social surveys to the residents living on the assessed parcels, in order to investigate their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Pairing the risk assessment and survey data generates answers to community-specific questions, such as: How do residents perceive risks? How will residents respond to incentives such as cost-share programs? What is the relative influence of different information sources? How do neighbors influence mitigation actions across property lines? In other words, the data we collect allow practitioners to approach the community holistically, rather than simply responding to a few loud voices that may not represent the community as a whole.

Community-level surveys reveal trends and information that can greatly inform FAC practitioners. For example, our survey data in Ouray County, Colorado, indicate that the vast majority of people living in wildfire-prone areas (in that county) know that they face risk, but they tend to underestimate that risk. Further, they often overestimate the importance of specific risk factors beyond their control — such as the composition of vegetation near their property — while giving less heed to factors that they can control, such as opportunities to replace combustible siding with more fire-resistant materials. This example is discussed in more detail in our article, Understanding Gaps Between the Risk Perceptions of Wildland-Urban Interface Residents and Wildfire Professionals.

In Log Hill Mesa, Colorado, we see that a willingness to participate correlates with both financial and non-monetary considerations, including informational barriers and wildfire risk perceptions. However, participation does not appear to correlate with concerns about effectiveness or visual impacts. Surprisingly, in that area, residents of properties with higher wildfire risk are also less likely to participate in cost-sharing programs than those with lower levels of wildfire risk. We find the willingness to pay for vegetation removal correlates with smaller property sizes and larger incomes. These data are explored further in our article, Cost Shared Wildfire Risk Mitigation in Log Hill Mesa, Colorado: Survey Evidence on Participation and Willingness to Pay.

For another example, consider the Telluride Fire Protection District, Colorado, where recent survey data revealed interesting results regarding homeowner’s insurance. Seventy percent of the study’s respondents didn’t know if wildfire risk affected their insurance policy, and only 9 percent of the respondents faced any wildfire risk mitigation requirements in order to obtain or maintain their coverage.

Practitioners use results like these to tailor their wildfire programs to the unique characteristics of the community, and to make the best use of scarce wildfire mitigation and outreach funds. Specifically, practitioners use the data generated to reflect on existing practices and programs, and to evaluate whether they are adequately responsive to what the local community needs. Over time, we can also use these data to track change.

One recent example of using baseline data to support programmatic efforts to reduce risk is WiRē’s use of targeted mailings (also called “nudges”). Nudges may include information about wildfire risk levels at the individual parcel level, the community level, and/or comparisons of the recipients’ and their neighbors’ risks. West Region Wildfire Council (WRWC) is using nudges to increase participation in their wildfire mitigation offerings. Before sending nudges, the communities in Delta County, Colorado, were not active in WRWC programs. After nudges, which included specific opportunities to engage, participation in site visits and defensible space projects both increased. This approach has become a WRWC best practice for engaging communities throughout the region.

A photo of a defensible space project with a WRWC sign in the foreground next to a bar graph that show a spike in projects per year in 2017 (from two to 17)

West Region Wildfire Council sponsored more defensible-space projects in Cedaredge Fire Protection District (located in Delta County, Colorado) after distributing an outreach letter using WiRē data. Photo: West Region Wildfire Council sponsors a fuels mitigation project. Graph: The number of WRWC-sponsored projects each year in Cedaredge Fire Protection District. Preliminary results — subject to revision. Not for citation or distribution. Credit: Wildfire Research (WiRē) Team

The WiRē Team’s collaborative work has resulted in a wide range of products, including publications for the public, practitioners and academic audiences, as well as collaborative presentations for similarly diverse audiences. The iterative nature of our process allows us to continually improve and refine the approach.

Change Over Time

The WiRē approach has evolved. Our evolution has required trust, engagement and, at times, leaps of faith by the team’s practitioners and researchers. As such, the WiRē approach looks different from an approach that researchers or practitioners alone might have created. The paired data unlocks new ways of motivating residents to become more fire adapted. Beyond the point of seeing this as a short-term effort, we continually and intentionally evolve the approach not only to improve outcomes where we currently work, but also to support replication in other locations. As we expand our efforts, our focus remains on supporting the efforts of wildfire practitioners and their work to promote fire adaptation in communities living in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

To date, the WiRē effort has directly reached over 6,000 households in 80 southwestern Colorado communities. We are now expanding our work in additional parts of Colorado and across the West. This year, in addition to continuing our long-running focus on southwestern Colorado and our ongoing collaborations with WRWC, WiRē is developing a new partnership with Grand County Wildfire Council in north-central Colorado by leveraging Bureau of Land Management (BLM) funding. Members of the WiRē Team are also taking the approach to the Chelan County Fire District 1 in central Washington as part of the USDA Forest Service-funded effort, Co-Management of Fire Risk Transmission. More broadly, we are increasing our capacity for supporting other communities in implementing our approach. We look forward to the challenges ahead and anticipate that learning and growth will accompany these experiences.

More About WiRē

Check out this short video to learn more about our work:

WiRē's logoThe WiRē Team includes researchers and practitioners from government agencies (USDA Forest Service, BLM, US Geological Survey), practitioners from WRWC, and a researcher from the University of Colorado Boulder. Our model has transformed how both researchers and the practitioners approach their work. Practitioners have come to realize that investing time and effort in research allows them to think more critically about the “what, how and why” aspects of their programs. For the researchers, taking the time and making the effort to really understand the context and content of practitioners’ efforts has upended assumptions about how WUI residents engage on the issue of wildfire.

To learn more visit about our work, visit our website.

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