Sarah McCaffrey works at the USDA Forest Service's Northern Research Station in Evanston, Illinois.

Topic: Communications / Outreach Type: Interview

Don’t Forget to Listen

Authors: Sarah McCaffrey Wendy Fulks

FAC Net: You’ve been in the fire community for 18 years now, ever since you began your 1998 dissertation research on the beliefs and mitigation efforts of homeowners in Incline Village, Nevada. You’ve seen a lot of approaches come and go, and taken part in countless discussions about addressing our wildfire woes. Do you think the “fire adapted communities” approach is here to stay, and if so, why?

Sarah: I hope it is here to stay. Prior programs or policies have focused primarily on one or two components of what will be needed for society to be able to more constructively live with fire: (e.g., Firewise primarily focused on homeowners, Community Wildfire Protection Plans are more of a community level planning focus, etc.) The fire adapted community idea brings all the components under one umbrella, everyone has a role to play – you are unlikely to have a fire adapted community if you only pay attention to homeowners, or to fuels treatments.

FAC Net: Is the fire adapted communities approach grounded in science?

Sarah: Science informs a lot of the FAC approach. Long existing research on how and why people adapt to natural hazards has provided a good foundation for understanding important dynamics such as the complexities of how people respond to risk. Fire social science research around homeowners and communities has helped identify variables to consider in relation to fire, and some that perhaps are less important than we think. For instance, despite beliefs that new people moving in are a major challenge, research has shown that newcomers are no less likely to be proactive than long-term residents. And long-standing psychological research identifies a dynamic, confirmation bias that explains why in fact newer residents might be easier to reach. The work has also shown the important role of social interactions, both with experts and between neighbors, in facilitating mitigation efforts. And of course the whole idea of the home ignition zone is based in science in identifying embers as the main cause of house loss, highlighting the importance of structural changes and what type of vegetation modification will make the most difference.

FAC Net: At our last Network workshop you talked about the need for fire adapted communities practitioners to banish the word “education” from their vocabularies. Can you explain?

Sarah: I don’t know that the word needs to be banished entirely. But too often an assumption underlying its use is that the main issue is one of information deficit, which tends to assume that if everyone has the same information they will all behave the same. In other words, if individuals just have access to the information fire professionals have then they will undertake the actions or behavior we want them to. But science (again there it is) has shown how information deficit is rarely the issue. In the case of fire, people understand the fire risk but may have barriers that limit their ability to act (such as cost of roof replacement or disposing of vegetation), or conflicting needs (such as balancing erosion concerns with fire mitigation), or just may not see the cost-benefit analysis for their situation as sufficiently positive. So I tend to prefer terms that are less focused on providing information. Outreach, while also not a perfect term, does at least have a bit more room for the notion of an interactive discussion-where all parties can learn from each other. Such interactive learning has been shown to be how most adults learn.

FAC Net: If you had one piece of advice to give to those who are engaged in outreach aimed at encouraging homeowners to create defensible space, what would it be?

Sarah: Listen. People have good reasons for what they do. And scale really matters when you are talking about fire risk. The risk of an individual homeowner losing their home to fire is much lower than that of a community losing one home. And in turn that community risk is lower than that for an entire state. Thus each entity may be thinking about and responding to a very different set of concerns. This is one reason why listening is important, – you can find out how the homeowner sees the fire problem and better identify barriers and things the homeowner cares most about, which may have nothing to do with fire. In the Midwest I’ve seen a number of homes with great defensible space but it has little to do with mitigating the fire risk, their concern is wind damage. Sometimes I think we get a bit too focused on people doing things because of the fire risk, but not all actions that might make a community more fire adapted need to be done for fire, they just need to be done.

FAC Net: How often do you wear purple?

Sarah: Well, my sunglasses are purple – so pretty much every day.

Learn more about Sarah and her research.


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