Date of Award:

2015

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Environment and Society

Advisor/Chair:

Mark Brunson

Abstract

Wildfire hazard is increasing in much of the United States, posing a threat to human communities and natural ecosystem services, especially in areas at the wildland-urban interface. There are steps people can take to reduce wildfire hazard, but often they are not used. Understanding and addressing human perceptions of wildfire risk and of risk-mitigating behaviors requires knowledge of both social and ecological systems. To better understand this complex issue, three types of factors must be addressed: social, cultural, demographic, and biophysical. This dissertation incorporates these three essential factors to intensively investigate the risk perception and behaviors of residents living in wildland-urban interface communities in three states (Arizona, California, and New Mexico). The first study examines the effect that individual risk perceptions have on intention to mitigate wildfire risk by integrating two social-psychological theories, Theory of Planned Behavior and Cultural Theory, to investigate the causal relationship and motivational factors that influence the intention to mitigate wildfire hazard. Results suggest that attitudes toward wildfire mitigation practices and perceived behavioral control play a significant role in the decision process. The effect of an individual’s orientation toward nature is mediated by attitude and perceived behavioral control. It is important that these orientations are taken into consideration when designing strategies to increase incentives to mitigate fire risk. The second study explores the linkage between property owners’ perception of risk and scientifically measurable wildfire risks that vary across hazard zones in the three study locations. Individuals’ perceptions of wildfire can be substantially different from each other and from reality. This study proposes that the perception of risk is formed in a multistage process (individual and community level). Results show that homeowners’ worldview with respect to nature, length of residency, place-based influence, and attitudes about risk factors all are significant predictors for how residents of fire-prone areas perceive their risks. The variance in social and physical vulnerability associated with wildfire can explain, to a certain extent, the variation in individual perceptions of wildfire risk. The perception of risk is consistent with the level of exposure to fire hazards. The third study investigates spatial relationships among social and ecological factors on private property. The biophysical characteristics of individual properties were extracted to observe wildfire risk and incorporated with information about social context from mail surveys. Results demonstrate that mitigation behaviors in the three study communities illustrate a spatial clustering pattern. Moreover, orientations toward nature and physical attributes of property had an impact on decisions to undertake mitigation behaviors.

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