Photo Credit: Residents gather in a neighborhood at risk of post-fire flooding to hear local representatives and experts discuss mitigation efforts in August 2019. Photo by Catrin Edgeley, Northern Arizona University

Editors’ Note: This blog features a summary of a recent social science research project coming out of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute by researchers Catrin Edgeley and Melanie Colavito. Catrin and Melanie focused their research on the community members of Flagstaff, Arizona following the 2019 Museum Fire event. Their research gives practitioners, fire fighters, policy makers and community leaders vital knowledge around the public’s support for forest management both before and after fire events. This blog shares their findings, as well as, provides actionable, on-the-ground lessons learned and tips to building and sustaining public support in any region.

“It’s a small bump in the road to a much better, healthier and safer mountain,” a Flagstaff resident says, looking out at the San Francisco Peaks that provide an iconic backdrop to the Northern Arizona community. We’re talking about the Museum Fire, which burned in the Dry Lake Hills — an area popular with recreationalists that was in the midst of a substantial forest thinning project — just north of Flagstaff in July and August of 2019.

Smoke billows in the hills behind open land with some pine trees, larger mountains lay behind the smoke.

The Museum Fire burned the Dry Lake Hills area in July 2019. Photo courtesy of Melanie Colavito, Ecological Restoration Institute

Support for forest management and fire risk reduction efforts in Flagstaff

Flagstaff has a long history of forest ecology research that has informed decades of active forest management. More recently, Flagstaff has seen an uptick in innovative efforts to restore forest health, reduce the risk of fire and mitigate post-fire flooding, driven in part by the 2010 Schultz Fire that caused catastrophic post-fire flooding. The Schultz Fire galvanized an already active group of local practitioners and scientists to develop the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP). The FWPP, funded by a popular $10 million bond measure approved by 73.6% of voters in 2012, is designed to accelerate local forest restoration and reduce the risk of post-fire flooding in critical watersheds adjacent to Flagstaff and around Flagstaff’s reservoirs.

The forests in and around Flagstaff are an important part of the community identity, as well as the local economy. Residents in the Flagstaff area have a high level of “ecological literacy” – that is, a strong understanding of ecological processes like fires and their importance for forest health. That literacy has been built over the course of decades of research and community outreach and has translated to widespread support for forest management efforts that restore forest health and reduce fire risk on both public and private lands. For more background on the efforts of literacy building see FAC Net’s interview with Flagstaff Fire Department’s Neil Chapman and this 2016 Ecological Restoration Institute Report.

Impacts of the 2019 Museum Fire

The Museum Fire was a significant event in that it tested the understanding of and support for forest management efforts in the Flagstaff area. Investigations following the Museum Fire reported that the source of ignition was a spark between a rock and metal from a piece of contracting equipment that was operating as part of the FWPP work on the Coconino National Forest. The fire also brought up memories of the 2010 Schultz Fire, as it burned in a watershed north of Flagstaff creating the possibility of catastrophic post-fire flooding into the city. Fortunately, it was not as severe as predicted due to a poor monsoon season.

We wondered whether the community’s support for forest management activity still held after the cause of the Museum Fire emerged. We conducted interviews and mailed a survey to 2,758 addresses in three areas across Flagstaff — households in evacuation zones, households downslope of the burn scar at risk of post-fire flooding, and a random sample of unaffected households across the city — to learn more about the impacts of the fire.

Insights from our 787 respondents show that despite the reported cause of the fire, public support for forest management remains strong. Although approximately 57% of respondents believed the Museum Fire was preventable, only 30.7% of respondents felt that the Museum Fire was an atypical fire event in the Flagstaff area. More than 86% of respondents strongly or moderately agreed that fire is a natural part of the landscape around Flagstaff. Perhaps most interestingly, approximately 92% of survey respondents strongly or moderately agreed that collaborative management efforts across agencies, governments and organizations were the best way to address fire risk to Flagstaff. All of these statistics indicate high acceptability of fire in the greater Flagstaff area and give agencies, governments and communities confidence and support to continue moving forward together with wildfire risk reduction work.

A group of people some sitting, some standing form a circle around a speaker with maps on stands

Residents gather in a neighborhood at risk of post-fire flooding to hear local representatives and experts discuss mitigation efforts in August 2019. Photo courtesy of Catrin Edgeley, Northern Arizona University.

Using recent fire events to gain management momentum

We often talk about “windows of opportunity” after fires to capitalize on public interest and support for forest management and fire risk mitigation. In Flagstaff, the Museum Fire appears to have renewed or strengthened support for projects like FWPP, which is timely as its initial bond funding draws to a close. If another city bond to fund forest management was placed on a future ballot, most of our survey respondents (73.3%) indicated that they would support it. More than half our respondents also wanted to see more money invested in the FWPP effort.

Given the financial costs of projects like FWPP, funding is often a central topic of conversation in communities with fire risk. Our survey respondents were generally willing to consider increases in city and property taxes and/or increased household utility fees. The average respondent was willing to pay ~ $18.58 a month for wildfire risk reduction activities around Flagstaff, but that amount varied significantly depending on the respondent’s experience with the Museum Fire. We saw that those in the flood risk area and in unaffected areas were willing to pay on average $5 less per month than those who lived in areas placed under evacuation notices during the fire. Additionally, willingness to pay increased relative to household income. These findings indicate that a flat dollar amount might not be appropriate or equitable across all households in a given area. Furthermore, direct experience with a fire may drive higher willingness to pay for wildfire risk reduction efforts for some households.

A steep slope in a forest landscape showing burned trees and a mountain range beyond

A view of a steep slope burned by the Museum Fire. Photo courtesy of Melanie Colavito, Ecological Restoration Institute

How can we harness public support for restoration and wildfire risk reduction?

Based on our survey data, high public support for active forest management seems likely to continue. How can we capitalize on this “window of opportunity” moving forward?

  • Incorporate and continue community-approved approaches. Familiarity with the rationale and need for existing management activities like FWPP have built confidence in collaborative approaches. That is no small feat and took several decades to achieve in the Flagstaff area. However, now that it has become ingrained in community culture, the community is more socially resilient to fire events when they do occur. Acknowledging local support for, and continuing to invest in, collaborative approaches will be key to maintaining momentum for forest management in Flagstaff.
  • Look to the (recent) past to know whether introducing taxes or fees to fund fuel treatments is right for your community. Despite widespread discussions about addressing wildfire risk through public funding, we know that public acceptance may be difficult to generate in many communities-at-risk from fire. Flagstaff is unique because of the widespread community willingness to help “foot the bill” for the FWPP in 2012. But other communities may find more difficulty garnering that level of community support. Creating transparency in funding decisions (e.g., placing it on voting ballots) can have long-term benefits and create new spaces for outreach and community conversations about fire risk reduction. Furthermore, it is important to sustain these conversations with the community to ensure that awareness of and support for funding does not dissipate as memories of past fires fade, whether that is through community events, extended outreach efforts via social media, or editorials in local newspapers to explain changes and associated decision-making processes. Important questions to consider in other communities may include: Have there been conflicts over how money is used to support forest management in the past? Do residents trust governments or land management agencies responsible for local public lands? Taking time to examine what precedent exists for actions within the fabric of a community’s history can help streamline pathways to publicly supported mitigation funding strategies.
  • Tailor your outreach strategies to reflect different household experiences with recent fires. Willingness to pay for wildfire risk reduction appears to vary across Flagstaff depending on household experiences with the Museum Fire. This suggests that outreach or communication strategies could be tailored to different groups within the community — particularly when it comes to framing future mitigation and fire management efforts. Developing a range of materials (e.g., flyers, presentations) that touch on different framing efforts (e.g. forest management as an opportunity for local economic growth, as a habitat restoration tool, and as a risk reduction technique) can help different audiences connect value to the same management action. In places like Flagstaff where resident turnover is high, second homeowners and newcomers represent an additional population in these outreach strategies. Sharing local cultures of support for forest management with that group can help further extend social license for wildfire mitigation into the future.
  • Demonstrate what you’ve learned from past fires (and how you’ve implemented those lessons) to build trust. The last page of our survey allowed respondents to provide additional comments they thought might be relevant to our study. Many long-term Flagstaff residents commented that once the Museum Fire began, they clearly saw lessons learned implemented from the Schultz Fire. While newcomers and more skeptical respondents asked how professionals would use takeaways from the Museum Fire moving forward. Transparency about how a fire event advances local wildfire response within agencies and governments is key to building confidence and opening an inclusive conversation about local fire adaptation. Successful efforts to create transparency in Flagstaff have included Coconino County and Forest Service employees speaking directly with the public about changes to decision-making processes, mailing fact sheets that document updates and changes on public land to adjacent private property and acknowledging agency and organizational limitations before, during and after fire. Highlighting specific partnerships that have emerged after fire was often well-received and celebrated by members of the public in Flagstaff.

According to our research, for many residents in Flagstaff, the Museum Fire underscored the importance of healthy forests and the reported cause of the fire did not seem to impact the existing social license for active forest management. Our survey highlights the importance of playing the “long game” in wildfire risk reduction — trust and support for forest management built over decades in this area is now integral to Flagstaff’s identity, but there are still many opportunities to continue to engage the public in conversations about forest management in the future.

The findings of our Museum Fire survey are publicly available here:

White paper:

Fact sheet:

Headshot of a woman

Catrin Edgeley

Catrin Edgeley is an Assistant Professor in the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University. She is a wildfire social scientist interested in understanding how socially diverse communities adapt to wildfire. Cat’s research spans several topics, including post-fire recovery, evacuation planning and support for regulatory and voluntary mitigation activities.

Headshot of a woman with dark hair

Melanie Colavito

Melanie Colavito is the Director of Policy and Communications with the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. Melanie directs government relations, public policy analysis, social science knowledge development and application, and communication services at the ERI. Melanie is a social scientist with a background in researching the human dimensions of forest and fire management and has been with the ERI since 2017. She has a PhD in Geography with a minor in remote sensing and spatial analysis from the University of Arizona and also completed a post-doctoral fellowship with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy in Fairbanks, Alaska. Melanie was born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona. She is motivated to work toward science-based, collaborative solutions to restoration and climate adaptation with diverse partners across Western forest and woodland landscapes.

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