Friday, October 29, 2010

Wildfire letdowns and wake-up calls

Science Centric: With damage estimates at more than $1 billion following recent October wildfires in the state of California, an important question comes into view: how will residents, business owners, insurance companies and community leaders respond? Will people incorporate learning from the fires into decisions about whether, where and how to prepare for future fires?

Risk perception researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) say some people will experience 'post-exposure letdown,' while others experience a 'post exposure wake-up call.' They say some people will not prepare for future fire events and some will not. Social scientists concede the finding is not surprising. They say the surprising thing is why - why do people who experience the same event perceive it differently and respond with contrasting tendencies?

An NSF-supported risk perception research team examined the phenomenon after a 2003 wildfire in Canada. Robin Gregory, senior researcher at the Decision Research office in British Columbia, Canada and Joseph Arvai, a professor of Judgment and Decision Making at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich. led the team.

They surveyed two sets of homeowners who survived a series of devastating wildfires in Kelowna, British Columbia. The fires caused the evacuation of more than 45,000 Kelowna residents, destroyed more than 300 homes and many businesses, and resulted in three deaths.

One group of surveyed homeowners from Kelowna did not lose their homes but were at risk of future wildfires because they lived in or near highly wooded areas similar to places where fires recently occurred. This group experienced what researchers call a post-exposure letdown.

These residents actually felt safer after the fires because they perceived themselves to have been the victims of an unfortunate low-probability event, and that the worst was over. As a result, people experiencing a letdown were unlikely to invest in costly and/or time-consuming measures to lower their future risks or to consider response strategies for future wildfires.

Contrasting sharply with the 'post-exposure letdown' was the feeling reported by the residents of Vernon, a community 32 miles north of Kelowna that was not affected by the fires but is situated in a similar urban-wildland interface area….

Fire crossing a California hill in 2007, shot by Richard Smith, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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