Controlled burn in Hayfork, California. Photo credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel

Topic: Communications / Outreach Type: Best Practices

Can Public Outreach Increase Smoke Acceptance?

Authors: Wendy Fulks

The Network hub organizations are in the process of finalizing their work plans for the next 12 months and at least two (those working in Flagstaff, Arizona and Deschutes County, Oregon) are planning some outreach related to increasing public acceptance of smoke from controlled burns.

So it was timely when I saw a link in last week’s Fire Learning Network e-newsletter to a new Joint Fire Science Program publication by Eric Toman, Christine Olsen and Paige Fisher. Their project was designed to examine the “social acceptability of smoke management practices, factors influencing acceptability, and the effectiveness of different communication approaches on acceptability and beliefs.”

Study sites were in Oregon, Montana, Northern California and South Carolina. In the final phase of the project, the research team used information gleaned from questionnaires to develop and test 13 different messages related to smoke. Investigators wanted to understand the “effects of message framing on participant knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes toward smoke emissions management and prescribed burn use in addition to their influence on information seeking and processing behaviors.”

Key Findings

Below are four of the key findings that seem most relevant to FAC practitioners:

(1) The first stage of the research included interviews with agency land managers (and others) about their experiences, strategies, partnerships and challenges related to smoke communications. The researchers found that most agency smoke emissions and management communications efforts lacked strategic focus and were not well coordinated across agencies. Locally, most of these efforts were underfunded.

(2) The type of fire producing the smoke (e.g., prescribed burn, agricultural burn, naturally ignited wildfire, private land refuse burn) influenced people’s perceptions of smoke. (Previous research supports this finding and the one below.)

(3) “The majority of the public accepts smoke from fuels reduction activities.” (However, more research is needed on the perceptions of those with low levels of acceptance, especial those who have health concerns related to smoke.)

(4) Good smoke messaging can decrease concerns about smoke and improve perceptions of agency managers. Overall, the 13 messages tested in this study significantly increased smoke acceptance. Those exposed to the messages were also more confident in agency managers’ ability to manage smoke.


Even though this research indicates that the majority of the public in the areas studied accept smoke generated by fuel reduction activities, the researchers recommend that agencies and other stakeholders continue their smoke messaging efforts.

…. communication and relationship-building can facilitate managers’ abilities to achieve their broader objectives…While communication efforts are not likely to be a panacea for all smoke concerns, our findings suggest they could provide substantial dividends by highlighting the benefits of prescribed fire use and encouraging residents to consider smoke emissions and management within the broader context of forest management. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, these efforts can also influence citizen confidence in agency managers.

In addition, the authors emphasize the importance of effective interagency coordination, both to avoid the confusion that can result from inconsistent messaging, and to help stretch limited resources further.

4 thoughts on “Can Public Outreach Increase Smoke Acceptance?”

  1. The study findings are very similar to what we found in NM when the Air Quality Bureau convened a 1-year process to revise the state smoke management plan: people who are smoke sensitive want to know what is going on and when agencies have a high-level of coordination between them, their ability to communicate well with the affected public is improved. In my opinion, the two most important parts of smoke management are great agency coordination and free-flowing information with in the communities that may receive smoke. What we need now is an “ap” like the flood warnings that burners can use to send real-time information to those who want the information.

  2. Wendy Fulks says:

    Hi Laura, good to know about the similar findings from New Mexico. I agree that the technology exists to facilitate better communication about smoke from rxburns.

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