WUI residents and professionals view their wildfire risks differently

As reported in a recent CU Press Release, when we analyze survey and professional assessment data for WUI properties in southwestern CO, we find that

the vast majority of people living in areas prone to wildfires know they face risk, but they tend to underestimate that risk compared with wildfire professionals.

Specifically, focusing on data collected in Ouray County in 2011, even though 93% of residents express concern about wildfire, 50% rate their own properties’ risks as “moderate” whereas professionals placed 65% of the same set of properties at “high” risk. Having collected not just overall risk ratings but also people’s views on ten separate property attributes that make up overall risk, we are able to determine that these residents

… tend to over-estimate the importance of specific risk factors beyond their control – such as the composition of vegetation on their property – while giving less heed to those they can mitigate, such as replacing combustible siding with more fire-resistant materials.

This is consistent with the conventional finding in the natural hazards literature that

…people tend to overweight things they have pretty limited control over. But they are downplaying the risk of things they can do something about, such as creating a ‘defensible space’ and what kind of siding they have.

The related research article details where residents’ perceptions of wildfire risk-related characteristics of their properties do and do not match with the ways professionals see their properties. Practitioners may find these results useful in developing effective community education programs. In addition, this research was reported in numerous media outlets across Colorado, including 7 News, Colorado Public Radio, The Denver Post, and the Daily Camera, and we hope that such coverage will help address some of the disparities we found by directly reaching WUI residents!

Source: Meldrum, Champ, Brenkert-Smith, Warziniack, Barth, and Falk (2015). Understanding gaps between the risk perceptions of wildland-urban interface (WUI) residents and wildfire professionals. Risk Analysis. DOI: 10.1111/risa.12370

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