OSU Study: Personal Experience with Wildfire Boosts Disaster Preparedness Engagement

Residents who experienced direct harm from Oregon's 2020 wildfires are more likely to take steps to mitigate their fire risk in the future, an Oregon State University study found.

They're also more apt to participate in community-helping activities like donating to and volunteering with emergency response groups after wildfires.

Disaster preparedness actions for wildfire risk may include preparing an evacuation plan, replacing flammable building materials, assembling an evacuation kit, improving air filtration and removing vegetation near the home, among others.

The OSU study provides a more comprehensive examination of people's experience with wildfire than most prior wildfire research, the authors say, because it asked about both mitigation and community-based responses. Researchers also asked detailed questions about the harm caused by the 2020 wildfires to participants directly, to their property, to their finances, to their mental and physical health and to their daily activity.

That level of detail provided researchers more information about why people choose to engage in disaster preparedness and to help their community.

The single most powerful factor was what researchers call "descriptive norms," which can be understood as a form of peer pressure: When people thought that more of their friends or neighbors were taking wildfire preparedness actions, they were more likely to do more to prepare themselves.

Published in Disasters, the study builds on previous work by co-author Hilary Boudet, an associate professor of sociology at OSU who researches the links between extreme weather events, climate policy and social mobilization around disaster response. The results were based on survey responses from people who lived in rural and urban areas across Oregon at the time of the September 2020 wildfires.

Predictably, people who experienced more severe harm from the 2020 wildfires were more likely to be proactive with future wildfire preparedness than those who were less affected, but several other factors also influenced individual responses. Women, people in rural areas and people with members of vulnerable groups in their households were all more likely to engage in more preparedness actions.

Researchers found that people who reported more concern about climate change after the fires were 1.5 times more likely to take at least three wildfire preparedness actions, compared with people whose concern about climate change stayed the same or declined after the fires.

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