Human Dimensions of Fire

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Victims or survivors? The cost of culture in fire recovery

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As fire disasters in California increase in severity and frequency, the costs accumulate for federal, state, and local governments, insurers, residents, and communities. While the costs of wildfires are difficult to quantify, the 2018 Carr fire in Shasta County, CA resulted in costly evacuations of approximately 38,000 people, the ecosystem loss of 229,651 acres, destruction of 1,077 homes and the generational equity represented therein, $162 million in firefighting costs, and an estimated $1.6 billion in damages. At the time, this was the sixth largest fire in California history and necessitated a coordinated recovery response by government agencies and nongovernmental groups. This seminar presentation draws on extensive qualitative data – 134 in-depth interviews and six months of ethnographic observation with Carr fire recovery organizations – to document mechanisms by which the costs of this disaster are borne unequally by residents. I demonstrate how local and visiting aid workers’ normative assumptions about legitimate victimhood structure survivors’ access to resources and produce inequalities in disaster recovery. I conclude with a discussion of how gender, race, and age intersect with socioeconomic class in the production of disaster recovery inequalities. As climate disasters become increasingly prevalent worldwide, it is imperative that ecologists, fire management agencies, social service providers, health professionals, and social scientists study the processes that produce unequal disaster recovery outcomes and propose interventions that can mitigate these disparities.

Presenter: Rebecca Ewert is an Assistant Professor of Instruction in Sociology at Northwestern University. Her research interests include mental health, disasters, culture, inequality, and qualitative methods. Her work explores how people of different social groups (classes, genders, ages, and races) recover economically, socially, and emotionally from disasters. More about her work can be found on her website: www.rebeccaewert.com.

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Environmental health of wildland firefighters: a scoping review

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Wildland firefighters are likely to experience heightened risks to safety, health, and overall well-being as changing climates increase the frequency and intensity of exposure to natural hazards. Working at the intersection of natural resource management and emergency response, wildland firefighters have multidimensional careers that often incorporate elements from disparate fields to accomplish the tasks of suppressing and preventing wildfires. Thus, they have distinctly different job duties than other firefighters (e.g., structural firefighters) and experience environmental health risks that are unique to their work. We conducted a systematic scoping review of scientific literature that addresses wildland firefighter environmental health. Our goal was to identify studies that specifically addressed wildland firefighters (as opposed to firefighters in a broader sense), geographic and demographic trends, sample sizes, patterns in analysis, and common categories of research.

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Guiding principles for transdisciplinary and transformative fire research

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To advance transformative solutions to this complex fire challenge, we propose four principles for conducting transdisciplinary fire research: (1) embrace complexity, (2) promote diverse ways of knowing fire, (3) foster transformative learning, and (4) practice problem-centered research. These principles emerged from our experience as a group of early-career researchers who are embedded within and motivated by today’s complex fire challenge within British Columbia (BC), Canada. In this forum piece, we first describe the four principles and then apply the principles to two case studies: (1) BC, a settler-colonial context experiencing increased size, severity, and impacts of wildfires, and (2) our ECR discussion group, a space of collective learning and transformation. In doing so, we present a unique contribution that builds on existing efforts to develop more holistic fire research frameworks and demonstrates how application of these principles can promote transdisciplinary research and transformation towards coexistence with fire, from local to global scales.

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Reflections from 20 years examining the social dynamics of fire management

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Sarah McCaffrey, retired in 2022 after 20 years as a fire social scientist with the US Forest Service where her research focused on understanding the social dynamics of fire management. This included research projects that examined the role of risk perception and risk attitudes, social acceptability of prescribed fire, homeowner mitigation decisions, evacuation decision making, risk communication, and agency-community interactions during fires. Since retirement she has been involved with a number of research and practitioner efforts to improve future fire outcomes including as an adviser to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Wildfire Resilience Initiative and Board member for Fire Adapted Colorado. She received her PhD in 2002 from the University of California at Berkeley where her dissertation examined Incline Village, Nevada homeowner views and actions in relation to defensible space and fuels management.

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Social vulnerability in US communities affected by wildfire smoke, 2011-2021

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During the 2011-to-2021 study period, increases in the number of days of heavy smoke were observed in communities representing 87.3% of the US population, with notably large increases in communities characterized by racial or ethnic minority status, limited English proficiency, lower educational attainment, and crowded housing conditions.

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Public experience with wildfire and flooding: Case study of 2019 Museum Fire

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Like many communities across the western United States, the greater Flagstaff area in northern Arizona has experienced multiple wildfires in recent years that have resulted in postfire flooding. The 2019 Museum Fire provides a case study for better understanding how the cascading disturbances of wildfire and postfire flooding, which can be further compounded by adjacent disturbances  like monsoon-related flooding, impacted Flagstaff residents, and how they were informed of, perceive, and respond to these risks. In 2022, we conducted a survey in Flagstaff after 2021 flooding associated with the Museum Fire burn scar and monsoonal events to better understand attitudes “before” and “after” flooding. This resulted in findings in eight thematic areas: 1) respondent demographics; 2) geographic distribution of respondents in 2022; 3) experiences with recent flooding events; 4) communication during flood events; 4) flood risk perceptions; 6) flood insurance coverage; 7) mitigating flood risk; and 8) managing flood risk, wildfires, and forest management. This work builds upon a survey we completed in 2019 immediately following the Museum Fire that evaluated respondents’ experience with the fire and evacuation, communication of fire emergency information, and opinions regarding forest management.

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Preparing landscapes and communities to receive and recover from wildfire through collaborative readiness- A concept paper

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This concept paper presents a Stages of Collaborative Readiness framework. Collaborative, multi-party entities provide fundamental roles and contributions to prepare landscapes and  communities to receive and recover from wildfire (identifying, connecting, and aligning stakeholders; co-developing strategies at scale; synchronizing operations; and facilitating science informed, continuous learning). The framework applies insights from the collaborative development literature to the context of forest and wildland fire risk management. It embeds the fundamental roles and contributions within a four-stage framework, identifying stage appropriate benchmarks and outcomes to increase the ability of a collaborative over time to serve those important functions.

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Social science to advance wildfire adaptation in the sw US: Review and future research directions

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Research on social aspects of wildfire in the southwestern USA has continued to diversify and broaden in scope over time, but some foundational lines of inquiry (such as public support for prescribed fire) have become outdated while other areas of study (such as fire prevention) have not been explored at all. Opportunities to advance wildfire social science efforts in the Southwest are abundant and well positioned to inform social understandings in other regions and countries.

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Reimagine fire science for the anthropocene

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Here, we outline barriers and opportunities in the next generation of fire science and provide guidance for investment in future research. We synthesize insights needed to better address the long-standing challenges of innovation across disciplines to (i) promote coordinated research efforts; (ii) embrace different ways of knowing and knowledge generation; (iii) promote exploration of fundamental science; (iv) capitalize on the “firehose” of data for societal benefit; and (v) integrate human and natural systems into models across multiple scales. Fire science is thus at a critical transitional moment. We need to shift from observation and modeled representations of varying components of climate, people, vegetation, and fire to more integrative and predictive approaches that support pathways toward mitigating and adapting to our increasingly flammable world, including the utilization of fire for human safety and benefit. Only through overcoming institutional silos and accessing knowledge across diverse communities can we effectively undertake research that improves outcomes in our more fiery future.

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Shifting social-ecological fire regimes explain increasing structure loss from Western wildfires

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This study documented a 246% rise in West-wide structure loss from wildfires between 1999–2009 and 2010–2020, driven strongly by events in 2017, 2018, and 2020. Increased structure loss was not due to increased area burned alone. Wildfires became significantly more destructive, with a 160% higher structure-loss rate (loss/kha burned) over the past decade. Structure loss was driven primarily by wildfires from unplanned human-related ignitions (e.g. backyard burning, power lines, etc.), which accounted for 76% of all structure loss and resulted in 10 times more structures destroyed per unit area burned compared with lightning-ignited fires. Annual structure loss was well explained by area burned from human-related ignitions, while decadal structure loss was explained by state-level structure abundance in flammable vegetation. Both predictors increased over recent decades and likely interacted with increased fuel aridity to drive structure-loss trends.

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