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Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Homeowner wildfire risk mitigation, community heterogeneity, and fire adaptedness - Final Report to the Joint Fire Science Program

Author(s): Patricia A. Champ, Hannah Brenkert-Smith, James R. Meldrum, Christopher M. Barth, Travis Warziniack
Year Published: 2017

In this project we posed the question “Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?” We focused on homeowner wildfire risk mitigation, community heterogeneity, and fire adaptedness. One of the unique aspects of this project was that the team was a research and practice collaboration. This collaboration facilitated conceptualization and implementation of the project with an eye toward scholarly contributions as well as direct contributions to enhance the programs administered by the practitioner collaborators. This report highlights the major findings and projects. What this report is not able to capture are the many ways in which this project affected the team members. This project was the start of something much bigger – an ongoing research-practitioner team (the WiRē team) and a commitment to help other communities use social science to tailor their wildfire adaptation efforts to the local context (www.wildfireresearchcenter.org). The first question we examined was “What is fire adaptedness?” Across participants at these differing scales, fire adaptation was described in various, related ways. In general, we found that study participants conceptualized fire adaptation in similar ways. There was agreement around the notion of fire adaptation as ongoing and context-specific. However, differences among the stakeholders emerged in translating the concept of fire adaptation into on the ground programs and activities. The scale of the respondents’ wildfire management realm (national vs regional vs local) seemed to be related to differing notions of how the fire adaptedness is implemented that we found stakeholders at differing scales of wildfire management.

The results of the inquiry into fire adaptedness informed our investigation of how individual and community characteristics relate to fire adaptedness. Using paired parcel level wildfire risk assessments and social surveys from 66 communities (2,180 individuals) in western Colorado, we found that even for variables with relatively high proportion of variation at community level, the vast majority of differences are across individuals within the community, rather than from one community to the next. This result underscores the importance of individual-level decisions.

We also found evidence of a gap between risk perceptions of WUI residents and wildfire professionals. We found that, on average, residents underestimated the overall risk of their property. We also looked at the effect neighbors have on each other with respect to wildfire mitigation. One third of the study participants reported having a neighbor that they think is increasing their risk. Perceived likelihood of fire reaching the property and causing damages was positively correlated with perceiving a neighbor is not taking action. However, we did not find those risk perceptions to be correlated with observable changes in defensible space. The only consistent predictor of defensible space that we found in this analysis was the level of defensible space on neighboring properties. Our results suggest that programs that are effective in getting single homeowners to mitigate risk may have benefits that spillover to neighboring properties. We also examined whether risk tolerant individuals were more or less likely to implement the wildfire mitigation recommendations of local wildfire educators. We found that risk neutral/tolerant individuals lived on parcels that were rated by the professional as having less defensible space and more ignitable structure materials.

This report also details innovative ways in which the research results were used to modify wildfire education programs.

Citation: Champ PA, Brenkert-Smith H, Meldrum J, Barth C, Warziniack T. 2017. Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Homeowner wildfire risk mitigation, community heterogeneity, and fire adaptedness. Joint Fire Science Project 14-2-01-31. Fort Collins, CO: USDA,Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 31 p.
Topic(s): Fire Communication & Education, Public Perspectives of Fire Management, Risk, Wildland Urban Interface, Wildland Urban Interface
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Technical Report or White Paper
NRFSN number: 17000
Record updated: Nov 5, 2018