U.S. Joint Fire Science Program


Date of this Version


Document Type



United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Northern Research Station, General Technical Report NRS-104, September 2012


US government work.


As part of a Joint Fire Science Program project, a team of social scientists reviewed existing fire social science literature to develop a targeted synthesis of scientific knowledge on the following questions: 1. What is the public’s understanding of fire’s role in the ecosystem? 2. Who are trusted sources of information about fire? 3. What are the public’s views of fuels reduction methods, and how do those views vary depending on citizens’ location in the wildland-urban interface or elsewhere? 4. What is the public’s understanding of smoke effects on human health, and what shapes the public’s tolerance for smoke? 5. What are homeowners’ views of their responsibilities for home and property protection and mitigation, e.g., defensible space measures? 6. What role does human health and safety play in the public’s perceptions of fire and fire management? 7. What are the public’s views on the role and importance of costs in wildfire incident response decisions? 8. To the extent that information is available, how do findings differ among ethnic and cultural groups, and across regions of the country? Despite limited fire research specific to the questions on costs, and human health and safety, common findings on all these interrelated topics are summarized in this document. Research has found that the public has a fairly sophisticated understanding of fire’s ecological role and the environmental factors that can increase fire risk. The public obtains information on fire from a wide variety of sources, but findings consistently show that interactive information sources are both generally preferred and more effective than unidirectional sources. As a way to improve ecosystem health and reduce fire risk, active land management generally has greater citizen support than a no-action alternative. Most respondents accept the practice of prescribed fire for active forest management and tolerate the accompanying smoke; in contrast, smoke is a highly salient issue for households with health concerns. The public tends to see mitigating the fire risk as a shared responsibility with landowners, whether public or private, responsible for taking appropriate action on their own property. Cost figures in to citizens’ decisionmaking about actions to protect property before a wildfire but may be less of a priority during incident response. Except for ethnicity or race, little evidence was found of meaningful variation in public response to fire management based on socio-demographic characteristics or geographic variation.