You Can Trust Nature

Earlier this month, I attended the A Week of Fire in Central Oregon fire science symposium in Bend, Oregon. It was a well-attended conference where I got to participate in the RX-310 course (The Ecological and Social Effects of Fire), sat in on some amazing fire science lectures, and learned that most folks trust nature – but not fire officials. Whoa. Back up. Did I just write that folks, people like you and I, trust our landscape’s inherent natural processes more than they trust the people in whom they place responsibility to protect their home from those natural processes? Well, if I didn’t, that’s what I meant to write. One of the aspects of this symposium that I found interesting was the inclusion of the social aspects of fire ecology. How is that we (residents, scientists, land managers) influence fire on the landscape and how does fire on the landscape influence us?

Jeff Kline, a U.S. Forest Service researcher, and Christine Olsen, Ph.D., a Research Associate and Instructor at the Oregon State University, presented the results of a survey they conducted among homeowners in central Oregon. They asked homeowners 25 questions about their fuel reduction activities on their property. And they also asked about what influenced their decision to conduct those activities and where they got their information. Their answers were both predictable and revealed a surprising, subtle relationship between these landowners and the fire-prone landscapes they live in. Results from Christine Olsen‘s survey showed that a little more than half of the landowners surveyed reduced fuels on their lands. This was a lot more than I had thought. Even though it would be nice if 100% reported they were actively managing their property, 56% is better than zero. What was also encouraging is that the surveyed showed Firewise programs did influence homeowners’ activities. Regardless of the motivation (“likes the way it looks”), the fact that Firewise programs had a positive influence on homeowners shows that federal and state efforts to engage the public are working! But what I found most interesting about the survey is that when asked about trust, the responses were not what I would have expected. I’ll present that question and the results in their entirety:

EDIT: my apologies to Ms. Olsen. Her paper is in the publication process and she has asked that I remove the screen shots of her paper. So, you get my terrible summary. My apologies.

In one of the questions, the respondents were asked about where they get their fire safety information from, whether they trusted the person or agency from which the information originated and whether they thought the information was important in their decision making process (as far as fire mitigation efforts were concerned).

Most folks got their information from the local fire department, a family member, or the U.S. Forest Service. Among those three, 62.6% fully trusted their family members, 80.7% fully trusted their local fire department and only 59.2% fully trusted the U.S. Forest Service.

What’s interesting to compare is the local fire department and the U.S. Forest Service. I pick these two for the obvious reason: the local fire department scored the highest in trust and importance, however, we all know, they have little influence over the management of the wildlands that surround these homeowners. The agency that does manage those lands are more than likely to be the U.S. Forest Service (simply because they own the most land in these rural settings). Notice that that agency score significantly lower on the trust and importance question. One might deduce that homeowners do not particular trust the one agency that has some of the most influence on whether a wildland fire occurs near their home and very well may be the agency that is ultimately responsible for protecting their home in the event of a wildland fire.

On the other hand, the respondents placed their complete trust in the fact that a wildfire, a natural process, in the vicinity of their home was only a question of time. Most (71%) believed that the chance of a wildfire occurring close to their home in the next five years was 50% or greater – even though only 2.3% had ever been evacuated from their home due to a wildfire. In other words, they know its coming – just not when. And the one agency that is responsible for managing those huge tracts of land where a wildfire is inevitable? The study showed that the U.S. Forest Service needs to improve the communication of their land management policies (wildland fire management versus “let burn” policy), because folks just didn’t trust the agency to use fire* near their homes.

EDIT: Image removed per request from study author.

If you’d like to find out more, please contact Jeff Kline with the U.S. Forest Service or Christine Olsen with Oregon State University. *Fire use to manage large tracts of land is becoming more popular with public land agencies. Fire ecology studies show the many ecological and fire risk benefits result from the use of managed, recurring fire.