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date: 22 May 2017

Improving Wildfire Risk Communication and Management

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Throughout the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, risks associated with wildfire were addressed by suppressing fires as quickly as possible. However, by the 1960s, it became clear that fire exclusion policies were having adverse effects on ecological health, as well as contributing to larger and more damaging wildfires over time. Although federal fire policy has changed to allow fire to be used as a management tool on the landscape, this change has been slow to take place, while the number of people living in high-risk wildland-urban interface communities continues to increase at a rapid rate. Under a variety of climate scenarios, in particular for states in the western United States, it is expected that the frequency and severity of fires will continue to increase, posing even greater risks to local communities and regional economics.

Resource managers and public safety officials are increasingly aware of the need for strategic communication both to encourage appropriate risk mitigation behavior at the household level and to build continued public support for the use of fire as a management tool aimed at reducing future wildfire risk. Household decision making encompasses both proactively engaging in risk mitigation activities on private property and taking appropriate action during a wildfire event to protect personal safety. Very little research has directly explored the connection between climate-related beliefs, wildfire risk perception, and action; however, there are those who find that climate-related beliefs have little direct effect on wildfire-related action. Instead, action appears to depend on understanding the benefits of different mitigation actions, and on engaging the public in interactive, participatory communication programs that build trust between the public and resource managers. A relatively new line of research focuses on resource managers as critical decision makers in the risk management process, pointing to the need to thoughtfully engage audiences other than the lay public to improve risk management. This research identifies several problematic biases in decision-making processes of managers, namely a tendency to discount future outcomes and to exhibit risk aversion in the short-term, which may lead to overly cautious decisions that reinforce the status quo.

Ultimately, improving the decision-making processes of both the public and managers charged with mitigating the risks associated with wildfire can be achieved by carefully addressing several common themes from the literature. These themes are to (a) promote increased efficacy through interactive learning, (b) build trust and capacity through social interaction, (c) account for behavioral constraints and barriers to action, and (d) facilitate thoughtful risk-benefit tradeoffs. With careful attention to these challenges it is possible to successfully manage the increasing risks that wildfire poses to the public and ecosystems alike in a changing climate.