Hannah Brenkert-Smith Research Featured in Colorado A&S Magazine

IBS Environment and Society researcher Dr. Hannah Brenkert-Smith had her research featured in the University of Colorado Boulder Arts and Sciences Magazine in an article entiteld "To confront wildfire risk, experts get social" by Cay Leytham-Powell. Some of the article is featured below, for the full article, click here. 

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For the community of Mountain Village in southwestern Colorado, it was all about the trees.

Anything that involved cutting down trees was a non-starter for this picturesque community near Telluride, according to the town council’s understanding at the time. Residents just weren't willing to get rid of them, they argued, even to reduce wildfire risk. A group of researchers and wildfire practitioners—or the Wildfire Research (WiRē) team—however, saw this challenge as an opportunity to do things a little bit different.

The team—which includes sociologists, economists and wildfire mitigation specialists (or wildfire practitioners) with ties both to the University of Colorado Boulder and federal agencies throughout Colorado—surveyed local residents and quickly disproved the conventional wisdom. In fact, 77 percent of Mountain Village respondents reported being willing to remove their trees to reduce wildfire risk and help protect their homes.

With data in hand, a member of the WiRē team and the director of a regional wildfire organization, Lilia Falk (Geog'10) of the West Region Wildfire Council, went to the town council and showed them that not only were a majority of respondents willing to remove trees to reduce wildfire risk, but that they felt there were both perceived barriers and distinct motivations for completing this work.

Mountain Village, much like other mountain communities throughout Colorado, was struggling to reconcile two apparently competing goals: making itself safer from wildfire while also preserving the beauty that draws many of its residents. And it is this tension, that while wildfire is a natural phenomenon, learning to live with wildfire is social—and social solutions are also needed to save lives and property—that the WiRē team hopes to address.

"As a nation, we're spending a lot of time, money and resources suppressing fires—especially fires that threaten homes and communities. But the human condition is such that humans choose to build in those areas. Humans choose. So, just the concept that, yes, it is a hazardous fuels issue, yes, it is a structure issue, but its first and foremost a social issue that needs to be addressed," said Falk.

Learning how to not only prepare for wildfires, but also live alongside them, is a difficult task, and one that the WiRē team hopes to help residents living in the wildland-urban interface—the transitional area between vegetation and homes—overcome through a combination of social science research and on-the-ground work, all to create more wildfire adapted communities.

They accomplish this through the systematic collection of household data via surveys. The team then pairs those data with parcel-by-parcel wildfire risk assessments, which are completed by professional wildfire mitigation specialists. From there, the team’s researchers analyze the findings and generate reports about the community and their relationship to wildfire, including residents’ risk perception, wildfire experience and their opinions of wildfire and mitigation work.

These reports, and the data within them, are then used by the team to craft useful products for the practitioners, including presentations, infographics and story synopses to help facilitate community conversations, and help expand the social science literature around wildfire adaptation and mitigation.

The collaboration, though, doesn’t end there. The researchers and practitioners use this as a jumping off point, continuing to work together to figure out how they can fine tune their research questions and create new programs aimed at improving wildfire preparedness.

Thus far, the team has collected data from roughly 80 communities across Colorado and has garnered about 6,000 risk assessment observations, predominantly in southwest and southcentral Colorado, with no plans of stopping.

One way they're expanding their work is by creating the WiRē Center—a non-profit outgrowth of the team. The center looks to help garner resources to further the goals of the group and to support more research-practitioner partnerships across Colorado and beyond.

This multi-faceted approach is especially important as wildfires grow in size and intensity, and more people move into the wildland-urban interface.

Wildfires are usually approached in the United States with a focus on mitigation (attempting to reduce the damage or risk of wildfires), and suppression (putting a fire out when it does occur). Homeowners and landowners are often encouraged to take care of their own property to reduce wildfire risk, but often they lack the specific information concerning how to do it, or to what extent they need to take action.

And often, according to Hannah Brenkert-Smith (PhD, Soc'08) of the WiRē team, wildfire management policies try to be a one-size-fits-all approach, which doesn’t necessarily work.

"A common limitation we see is not that homeowners don’t know their homes are at risk of wildfire—they're often quite aware of that in a general sense—but where some of the information disconnect comes in is that people don't necessarily know the specifics," said James Meldrum (PhD, EnvSt'12), a research economist with the U.S. Geological Survey who is a member of the WiRē team, and, formerly, a research associate with the CU Boulder's Institute of Behavioral Science. "They might be taking action such as creating defensible space around their home, but they might not be doing it to the level that the practitioner would want them to be doing, or that would be as effective as it could be."

"We're seeing that providing that information really makes a difference."

Beyond just a lack of information, another barrier to mitigation efforts is the sheer initial cost of the endeavor. Research shows, however, that for every dollar invested in mitigation before a big wildfire disaster, society saves $4 in suppression costs when the wildfire burns.

"We believe that if more investment happens in the upfront side of things, supporting community risk reduction, that we can reduce impacts in local communities from major wildfires," said Brenkert-Smith, an environmental sociologist and research faculty with the Environment and Society program at the Institute of Behavioral Science. "But at this point in time, the machine to respond to fires is so big and so hungry that there are few dollars left to put on this front-end piece."

"And so, what we're trying to do is create a way—a systematic way—of investing dollars so that when wildfire programs and practices are underway, that they’re efficient, they’re tracking what works, and they're responding to the local context."

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For the full text of the article, including supplemental videos, click here.