Photo Credit: When it comes to better wildfire outcomes, what’s with all the error messages?


I recently attended “Living with Wildfire on California’s Coast” symposium, hosted by the California Fire Science Consortium. Meeting fellow practitioners, learning about the latest in fire science, better understanding the North Bay Fires of 2017.

Practitioners and the public at the end of driveway, where instead of a house, all they see is burnt soil and large rocks

With a rock outcropping like this, you’d think the group just reached the end of a hike. But no, this is my field trip group on the third day of the symposium, where someone’s house once stood. The homeowner explained that before the Tubbs Fire, the vegetation was so thick that he didn’t even know there were boulders there. Credit: Jana Carp, Jana Carp Consulting

One of my favorite parts of the symposium was talking to Sarah McCaffrey. As Sarah noted, after a day and a half of talks about different aspects of fire ecology and technology, she had about 20 minutes, at the end of the second day, to “cover social science.” (She, of course, gave a shoutout to the wonderful presentation on indigenous burning, delivered by Chuck Striplen, and the few other social/cultural presentations that we got along the way, but her point was that there was an imbalance.*) She certainly made the most of those precious 20 minutes, though. Backs straightened and ears perked up when she called it like it was, saying, “So, a lot of what I’ve heard yesterday and today is similar to what I’ve heard during the last 15–20 years.” She went on to suggest that maybe why we are having such a hard time generating better fire outcomes is that we keep focusing on gathering and disseminating more biophysical science, seemingly on the assumption that information is all that we need to change, rather than gathering (and using the existing) social science.

*I am delighted to report that the California Fire Science Consortium was eager to integrate more social science and tools related to behavior change into future symposiums, especially because they have five social scientists on their staff.

If you know Sarah, you know about her research regarding “the imagined public.” It’s about the misconceptions many biophysical scientists and wildfire resilience practitioners have of the public, and the, therefore, ineffective approaches many folks take when trying to catalyze behavior change.

“They don’t understand the risk. They don’t realize that their house could burn down.”

“If we give them more information, they’ll take action.”

“They think all fire is bad. They don’t understand the science.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Well, maybe not always; there are certainly nuances, and of course, there are instances where we or the public** don’t fully understand something.

**Regarding this perceived disconnect between “us” and the general public, I’d like to quote Jana Carp: “Wait, we’re the public, too.” Jana’s insights were another symposium highlight for me. Check out her post, Community Magic: Community-Based Asset Mapping Establishes New Connections for Fire Adaptation to learn more about her approach to resilience and behavior change. 

Sarah’s been sharing syntheses of research — her own, and that of others in the field — and preaching her own counternarrative for 20 years now. Still, practitioners continue to assume the opposite of what dozens of social science studies have found (for example, check out Sarah’s 2008 and 2006 papers).

Her candid presentation, peppered with other comments she made throughout the symposium, got me thinking. And then it dawned on me — maybe the same misunderstanding of “we just need to better educate them,” applies to our own community of FAC practitioners. Maybe we are the “them” in that statement. After all, it seems to me that educating the wildfire resilience community about “the public,” isn’t really changing how all practitioners go about their business.

So first, I’m going to contradict myself regarding the principle that addressing an information deficit will solve the problem and ask you all to watch this presentation.

And then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on a question that’s been on my mind since seeing Sarah a few weeks ago: What needs to happen for us, wildfire resilience practitioners, to change our approach based on the social science Sarah presents in the above webinar? Is there truly an information deficit regarding how we can best cultivate behavior change? Or do we have the information, but need something else?


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