Editor’s Note: Dr. Sarah McCaffrey, one of FAC Net’s original research partners, retired from the USDA Forest Service at the end of November. Her long and distinguished career helped to advance the field of wildfire adaptation and provided countless insights to wildfire practitioners across the globe. From evacuation decision-making, to wildfire communication, to what we know about smoke science, Sarah’s research has tackled some of the most pressing questions in community wildfire adaptation. Today, we are celebrating her contribution to wildfire adaptation with a resource round-up focused on a small portion of her body of work and including highlights from her contributions to the FAC Net blog over the years.


Effective Communication About Wildfire Management: Insights From 20 Years of Fire Social Science Research.

In this hour-long webinar for the Rocky Mountain Research Station Science You Can Use webinar series, Sarah shares insights from her career in social science. With tips and takeaways for those new to the field as well as experienced wildfire practitioners, this webinar provides an excellent overview of wildfire-related social science. 

What we loved: The relatively concise overview of a substantial body of research. 



Social Considerations: Health, Economics, and Risk Communication.

In this chapter, Sarah and numerous co-authors review the existing literature related to wildfire smoke in four areas: human health, economics, social acceptability, and risk communication. 

What we loved: The comprehensive examination of smoke-related social considerations. 

“…research has consistently found that approximately 30% of survey respondents indicate someone in their household has a health issue affected by smoke. For these individuals and households, smoke tends to be a particularly salient topic. However, for most individuals, smoke is less critical in shaping acceptance of prescribed burning. Instead, understanding the beneficial ecological effects of fire and trust in those who are implementing the prescribed burn are more critical.”


The Panic Myth: What Does the Research Say and What Can Practitioners Do?

In the first part of this two-part 2020 FAC Net blog, Sarah provides research-based insights around evacuation and busts the myth that people inevitably panic when provided evacuation information. Part two of the blog focuses on what practitioners can do to capitalize on the knowledge Sarah shared!

What we loved: The application of research to a common misconception in the wildfire space.

“However, research clearly demonstrates that actual panic (irrational, nonadaptive, or antisocial behavior) in response to a natural hazard, including wildfire, is extremely rare. Evidence shows that although there may be heightened anxiety, fear, and more rapid action (all rational responses to impending danger), individuals tend to respond to an imminent threat by first engaging in gathering more information to determine the best course of action and then proceeding to act in a manner congruent to their situation.”


Evacuation Decision Making.

In this short 30-minute webinar, Sarah shares her insights into how people make decisions about whether to stay, wait and see, or evacuate during a wildfire emergency. If you would like to read the research behind this presentation, you can do so here!  

What we loved: The discussion of context in evacuation decision-making.  


Fire Narratives: Are Any Accurate?

In this 2018 FAC Net blog, Sarah invites us to take a deeper look at common fire narratives. From the expanding wildland-urban interface to the cost of structure protection, Sarah asks us to dig a little bit deeper as inaccurate narratives are unlikely to lead to effective solutions.

What we loved: The research-based questioning of common wildfire narratives.

“Accepting WUI narratives that lack sufficient supporting data can lead to developing solutions that are less likely to have the desired impact, because they may be targeting the wrong problem. Further, these proposed solutions may have unintended consequences because they don’t take existing data, or lack thereof, or the larger context into account.”


Photo of Sarah McCaffrey in yellow and green fire gear leaning against a tree

Sarah knows how to keep us entertained! Photo credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson


Don’t Forget to Listen: An Interview with Sarah McCaffrey.

In this 2015 interview, readers have the opportunity to get to know Sarah through her views on fire adaptation, education, and the need to listen. 

What we loved: The idea that listening is powerful and interaction matters in a short interview.

“Listen. People have good reasons for what they do. And scale really matters when you are talking about fire risk.”


Study Examines New Type of Wildfire Health Impact.

In this 2015 interview centered on the psychological impacts of wildfire-related loss of the landscape, Sarah talks about her work on this study and offers insights on how this body of knowledge can be applied in community-resilience work.

What we loved: The recognition of diverse wildfire impacts. 

“I think the key thing is to recognize that individuals who ostensibly might not have suffered any concrete losses from the fire might still be adversely affected. Other studies have shown that it can help to involve people in recovery efforts, particularly in volunteer work to restore or rehabilitate the landscape – in effect by helping heal the land they help heal themselves.”   


Research Perspectives on the Public and Fire Management: A Synthesis of Current Social Science on Eight Essential Questions.  

In this 2012 paper, authored with Christine Olsen, Sarah synthesizes research efforts centered on eight important fire management questions, ranging from “What is the public’s understanding of fire’s role in the ecosystem?” to “What are homeowners’ views of their responsibilities for home and property protection and mitigation, e.g., defensible space measures?” This paper provides an easy to read summary for practitioners seeking to understand what research does and does not support related to those key questions. 

What we loved: The presentation of research findings in a format designed to answer key questions from managers and practitioners. 

“Overall, the research paints a picture of a public that often has a sophisticated understanding of how fire fits into the ecosystem— in terms of its ecological role as well as the environmental characteristics that contribute to increased fire risk.”


Photo of Sarah McCaffrey in a hard hat and yellow fire shirt smiling at the camera.

Sarah McCaffrey on a burn project. Photo credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Readers are invited to join us in wishing Sarah well as she closes the door on a twenty-year career in federal service. Feel free to share your best wishes, key takeaways from your conversations with Sarah, or how her work impacted you in the comments below. Sarah, from all of us here at FAC Net, thank you for helping us think critically about the work we all do together and for stressing time and time again the importance of listening to one another. We aren’t quite sure what she will be up to next, but Sarah assures us she has more to contribute to wildfire adaptation. We look forward to seeing what the next chapter holds!