'No one wants our homes or forests to burn up'

'No one wants our homes or forests to burn up' »Play Video
Home threatened by wildfire near Salt Lake City, 2010: http://bit.ly/mtkxaE The "Machine Gun Fire" in Utah in September, 2010, near Salt Lake City, burned more than 4,300 acres, caused the evacuation of 1,600 homes and destroyed several. (Photo courtesy of Oregon State University)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As homes and cities expand closer to forests and wildlands across the American West, increasing wildfire threats have created an unlikely new phenomena – confidence in government.

Recent studies show that people in neighborhoods adjacent to public forest lands can and do trust natural resource managers to a surprising degree, in part because the risks they face are so severe.

Thousands of acres burn every year, threatening homes, lives and property, and in many groups and areas, the phrase “I’m from the government – trust me” is no longer being used as a joke or punch line.

An Arizona community thanks firefighters for their work. Eric Horton photo

In a survey done in seven states, researchers from Oregon State University and other institutions found that a large majority of people rated agency management of public forest lands as good or excellent.

Additionally, more than 80 percent of those surveyed - and up to 90 percent at some sites - showed support for mechanical thinning or mowing to reduce fire risks. Only such approaches as use of herbicides found lower degrees of support. The findings have been published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

“Declining forest health and wildfire are such serious and increasing threats that we are beginning to see partnerships forming among mill owners, logging contractors, residents and environmental groups,” said Bruce Shindler, an OSU professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “The stakes are just too high for everyone.”

The studies found that local, personal relationships were what mattered most in coming to agreement on natural resource plans and policies, topics that have often been contentious among various interest groups in the West. 

Positive interactions between homeowner associations, local leaders and individual land managers make the difference, scientists say. Teachers and retirees, for example, are now organizing programs to create defensible space in their neighborhoods and learning steps that can be taken to protect their homes.

“People may still not trust big business or big government, but they trust Joe, the local Forest Service district ranger,” Shindler said. “In forest communities there’s a growing understanding that threats from wildfire are everyone’s concern.  It helps get these groups past that us-versus-them mentality. And this rings true in diverse places we surveyed in Utah, Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona.”

Surveys were done in 2002 and 2008 - with the same individuals over time - analyzing the status and changes in people’s attitudes towards fire and land management policies. The greatest progress was made where local residents had become involved, Shindler said, and worked closely with government and community groups to develop enlightened management approaches that help protect property and improve forest health.

“I was at a judicial hearing a few years ago in Sisters, Ore., where a large crowd of residents spoke in support of local Forest Service policies,” Shindler said. “It was pretty incredible. It’s just not something you see all the time.”

One study of forest communities was recently published.

Among its findings:

  • The average annual area burned in the U.S. has more than doubled from that of the 1990s, and 38 percent of all the nation’s housing units are now located in the wildland-urban interface.
     
  • Thousands of homes and structures have burned in massive fires in California, Colorado, Arizona and other areas, despite record federal expenditures on fire suppression.
     
  • Residents in forest interface areas generally agree that agency use of prescribed fire and mechanized thinning along with property owners reducing fuels around their homes offer some of the best options to reduce losses.
     
  • The USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and state management agencies all enjoyed “full” or “moderate” support by a majority of residents who trusted them to make good decisions about wildfires and fire prevention.
     
  • Citizen trust in agency managers is particularly influential in public acceptance of fire management strategies. Dedicating resources that build and maintain citizen trust will be important to long-term success. 

“Nearly all participants indicated a good relationship existed between local managers and community members,” the researchers wrote in their report. “Such results may be surprising given the often contentious debate surrounding many forest management decisions in recent years.”
This study was supported by the Joint Fire Science Program of the USDA Forest Service. Other collaborators were from The Ohio State University and Northern Research Station of the USDA Forest Service.

“Fire is probably the easiest issue to build agreement around, because no one wants our homes or forests to burn up,” Shindler said. “However, this also shows the power of building relationships and trust among community members. These approaches may lead the way to resolving other natural resource conflicts.”