Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on November 2, 2015.

Social Studies

The importance of social behavior research in wildfire science.

IN JULY, NFPA'S FIRE PROTECTION RESEARCH FOUNDATION hosted a gathering in Denver with the goal of helping shape “the direction and future of the research needed in wildland and wildland/urban interface topic areas.” Some three-dozen researchers and wildfire safety advocates, representing a wide range of stakeholder organizations, discussed important wildfire research questions. Among other things, I was impressed by the tremendous scope of wildfire research.

In addition to technical subjects, the future of wildfire research must equally tackle questions related to social behavior. Every day I see the great value that sound research in social issues can bring to the legitimacy of both preparedness messaging and program outreach. We must ensure that people living in areas impacted by the threat of wildfire can utilize the practical information that emerges from social research, tools that can protect them from injury and economic loss.

Research into social behavior around wildfire grew in the 2000s. A review of the literature on wildfire in 2002 would have produced a trove on post-evacuation trauma and warning alert use, but almost nothing on preparedness and mitigation, key pre-fire social behaviors. This has changed over the past decade, however, thanks to work by U.S. Forest Service researchers such as Sarah McCaffrey and Pam Jakes, as well as applied social behavior change models designed by Judith Leraas Cook that focus on the behavior of individual residents. This work greatly influenced the initial development of NFPA’s Firewise® Program and its delivery of educational principles on home survivability.

Research also improved our understanding of social behavior in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) and helped replace some old assumptions. New research, for example, shows that it’s not always a community’s newly arrived residents who resist acknowledging risks like wildfire. Other post-fire evacuation studies have shown that residents got the evacuation message but waited to see what their neighbors did before reacting. Often, they waited too long.

Social aspects of wildfire research are also changing how we deliver important and life-saving safety messages. Authors like Linda Masterson, who writes compellingly from her personal experience of wildfire loss, are able to communicate key findings through popular media with great effectiveness.

Structural fire hazards are largely resolved with structural engineering fixes, one building or system at a time. WUI hazards, on the other hand, cannot be fixed by physical science alone. Because the condition of my neighbor’s home and property can affect my home and property, we have to introduce social behavior change so that collective action can reduce the hazards. We need to ensure that research focus not just on the vulnerability of the structure to wildfire, but also on how the people residing in that structure understand the hazard and act to reduce that vulnerability.

NFPA values robust fire data of all kinds, including data on the social dynamic around wildfire—information that can help communities across the nation address the wildfire threat. Making the data sound, understandable, and, most importantly, implementable is a positive goal for wildland fire research.

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Program in NFPA's Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Photograph: Corbis Images