Clarifying Wildfire & Public Values

8 minute read


The term “values” is perhaps one of the most muddled and confusing terms in wildfire management discussions today. Sometimes it’s used to refer to tangible things, as in “we should send a crew to do values protection” (i.e., we should send firefighters to protect that house). Other times it’s used to talk about slightly more abstract - but still physical things - like the habitat of a particular species, land used for hunting, or a kind of ecosystem. And, in other situations, it’s even more ambiguous, being used to describe things like what the public “values” (i.e., priorities like preventing smoke or reducing house loses or access to old growth landscapes).

In “Values of the public at risk of wildfire and its management,” Kathryn Williams, Rebecca Ford, and Andrea Rawluk from the University of Melbourne take up the challenge of clarifying this messy and confusing term. They have a more specific goal as well, though: to identify a “small yet comprehensive” set of values that are affected by wildland fire, which can be used by wildfire managers as a starting point for consulting with their local communities about what is important to the public.

Based on earlier work by Andrea Rawluk, the authors divide values into three categories (which according to their diagram do not overlap), ranging from the more abstract to the more concrete:

  • “Core values,” which are abstract ideals held across broad communities
  • “Valued attributes,” which are things like landscape and cultural values; and
  • “Valued entities,” which are things like built objects, mappable places, and people themselves.

Exploring these Values: A Survey

To understand how these values are taken up by the public, the authors conducted a survey in Victoria, Australia. In all, they had roughly 1,100 valid responses from residents in fire-prone parts of the state. They collected these respondents through a combination of paid, online panels (for 865 people, which had no particular interest in fire) and stakeholder recruitment efforts (for 240 respondents with sectors like emergency management, forestry, and tourism). This is a good thing to do: because those who think about wildfire a lot likely have different views than those who don’t regularly think about the topic, it helps to bring some balance to the sample.

A side note here about research in general: One thing that hampers the field of disaster and emergency management (like many other fields) is the fact that we don’t tend to make key data open access. In this case, it would be hugely valuable to be able to see (a) the actual survey that was administered and (b) the data that was generated. Making these materials easily accessible allows researchers to better understand the study that was done, reanalyze the data to test other hypotheses, and even simply confirm the analysis of the initial study. And, for someone like me who focuses on survey design, it’s the only way to know whether the questions they used were good measures or not!

Now, to be fair, I didn’t ask the authors whether they would share this data with me (they might well have… I have no reason to doubt them!). But, it’s a broader point - we shouldn’t have to rely on one-off asks or the goodwill of researchers to be able to examine each others’ data, nor take the time to make these asks or figure out how to share it in a piecemeal manner. Being able to examine methods and results is a crucial part of the peer review of science. It would be really great if journals like the International Journal of Wildfire Management required this of their authors and provided a place to upload this data.

What Did They Find and Why Does it Matter?

There’s quite a bit of statistical work in the paper on the commonalities and linkages between different values. As is the purpose of this blog, however, I’m not going to go into detail on this portion because I want to focus on the more practical lessons that they offer for fire managers.

There are two major conclusions that they suggest have practical importance. First, the authors say the study confirms “that members of the public value a broader range of entities than are usually targeted in wildfire risk planning, where focus is typically on homes and infrastructure” (p. 672). Second, they emphasize the “relational nature of values and valuing” (p. 674). In other words, they suggest that these more abstract values can help to explain why members of the public do or don’t value specific assets or objects.

I do think we have to be cautious about the evidence for the first claim because of the tautological nature of the study design. The results demonstrate that people care about a wide range of values because we asked them which (of a wide range of values) they care about. In other words, they were prompted, primed, and guided by the design of the survey to note caring about these things. If the survey had asked only about assets, it would have found that people care about assets. Because it asked about a much more robust and ranging set of values, low and behold, people care about these too! That being said, just because there was a leading effect from the survey doesn’t mean that the results are wrong. Indeed, it shows precisely the importance of asking about more than just assets - people have opinions to express on these more abstract values as well!

What Does This Mean for Wildfire Managers?

Our sector is often dominated by a focus on modelling and GIS tools that emphasize stuff on the landscape: homes, power lines, and other built features. But, this paper shows that (1) often the public cares about more than just the stuff because they have these higher-order values, and that (2) these values are deeply interconnected. As a practical example: it’s not just that people care about protecting pets or farm animals, but they care about this for many reasons: because of a commitment to animal welfare, because it’s tied to their livelihood, because it brings a sense of normalcy, and because these intermediate values are connected to even deeper issues like security, self-direction, and benevolence. In other words, it’s not just a horse: it’s also deeply tied to who this person is, to their independence and work, and to their purpose in caring for others.

It can also inform more practical steps. In risk assessments, for instance, we might want to look beyond the stuff and do a better job of cataloguing other things that people value (and therefore is at risk). It can help us to anticipate how people might respond to different plans or choices, or identify ways of appealing to these deeper values (like altruism, normalcy, security, and benevolence) in public communication efforts. And, it’s reminiscent of the “iceberg” model from conflict resolution: that there are deeper priorities hidden below the surface, and that sometimes conflicting positions have much more in common below the surface than appears from the separated peaks visible above the waves.

In Summary

The authors do a great job of showing how tangible values (e.g., ‘protect my home!’) are connected to more abstract, deeper-rooted values (e.g., the need for security and normalcy). This is important for managers to realize - it’s not always about the stuff because the stuff is connected to these deeper values.

But, more needs to be done to figure out how to put this observation into action. Would asking a local community about this wider range of values actually change how wildfire managers would make their choices? What choices would (or could) they make differently? And, how should they deal with conflicts between these values?