A National Study of Public Perceptions of Values Associated with Fire Protection and WUIs Using Mixed Methods

The American psyche struggles with fire. For generations, we have been taught fire destroys forests and many of its associated values. Recently, however, particularly as resource managers learned more about ecosystems and their function, the science of fire prevention and fuel treatments experienced renewed and enhanced support.

Funding source: Joint Fire Science Program

However, the use of fire prevention measures for enhancing ecosystem services has not found purchase in either the public's acceptance or involvement in this new role of and for fire. This is especially true of the forests within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), where fire protection is directed not only at the forests but also the homes and structures that are becoming much more prevalent in the WUI. The USDA Forest Service has estimated more than 17 million hectares of private forests in the U.S., 11% of the total area, is at risk of conversion to development within the next two decades which will exacerbate this problem.

Coupled with public uncertainty of fire's role in the ecosystem, resistance to many recommended fuel treatments within and in close proximity to the WUI further complicates fire managers' roles. This resistance arises from two primary factors:

  • Many of the prescribed fuel treatments do not reflect forest owners' understanding of vegetation management
  • Treatments are developed with little recognition of the multiple values owners and the general public place on the forests and the WUI

A wide range of diverse values have been attributed to the WUI. This includes a variety of ecosystem services such as climate regulation, enhanced air quality, habitat for a variety of species, noise abatement, enhanced property values, and numerous human and community health benefits. To date, however, much of the fire prevention/fuel treatment efforts have concentrated on protecting homes and other structures with little regard for the effects on other values.

This project's major goals are to identify and define the various values at risk from wildfire events both within and outside the WUI and to quantify the extent of these values. To do this, we work with landowners and the general public to identify the full range of values associated with WUIs, including ecosystem services, aesthetics, and other attributes these two groups identify through key informant and facilitated group interviews. Additionally, we employ a survey to estimate the willingness of residents to receive fuel reduction treatments. Two general research objectives guide this study:

  • Residents and landowners value the WUI for a variety of benefits and services
  • A variety of factors affect the values placed on these benefits

Identifying and better understanding the effects of these variables will allow managers to develop more effective fuel treatment policies to protect these values that will achieve stakeholder acceptance.

Several hypotheses related to our overall goal are critical to this study and reflect its transdisciplinary design, revolving around biophysical, sociodemographic, and sociocultural concerns:

  • H1: Values associated with WUI and fuel treatments reflect biophysical differences across regions of the nation.
  • H2: Values associated with WUI and fuel treatments reflect sociodemographic differences among residents of the nation's different regions.
  • H3: Values associated with WUI and fuel treatments reflect sociocultural differences among residents of these regions.
  • H4: Acceptance of fuel reduction treatments will relate to perceptions of wildfire risk and fire history.

To address each of these hypotheses, our project gathers data in a multi-phase, mixed-model method incorporating qualitative and quantitative research gathering techniques. These data relate to the role of sociodemographic characteristics, biophysical conditions, and sociocultural differences as factors influencing public response. Data developed by this project will help field managers and other end users better understand public perceptions of issues surrounding the full range of values associated with WUIs.

Such an understanding is critical to developing educational outreach programs and strategies for increasing acceptance of fire as an important management tool in reducing risk to these values while improving the health of the nation's forests. The definition of "public" is as dynamic as the forest, and it is land managers' responsibility to recognize public concerns and tailor their message to them.

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A National Study of Public Perceptions of Values Associated with Fire Protection and WUIs Using Mixed Methods