Causal Reasoning Processes of People Affected by Wildfire: Implications for Agency-Community Interactions and Communication Strategies

Document Type


Journal/Book Title

Western Journal of Applied Forestry

Publication Date



Society of American Foresters





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Fire officials are dismayed when victims of wildfire blame fire fighters and others responsible for fire management for damage resulting from uncontrolled fires. This is in spite of the fact that wildfire damage is a consequence of dynamic interactions among natural factors (wind, temperature, location of wildfire, topography, etc.) and human factors (past land management, promptness of firefighting activities, extent of homeowners' defensible space, etc.). Fire and land managers do not typically understand why and how the victims arrive at such oversimplified, and in some cases inaccurate, conclusions about wildfire causation. Attribution theory in social psychology provides a framework for understanding the mechanisms of these blaming processes. In this study, both quantitative and qualitative approaches were used to explore how people who live in wildfire hazard zones and experienced wildfire, perceive the causes of wildfire damage. In the spring of 1999, a prefire survey was conducted in the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an area where numerous wildfires are recorded nearly every year. This was followed by a postfire survey in two communities that actually experienced a fire that season. In addition, qualitative interviews were carried out in these two affected communities. Results suggest that people who experienced wildfire tended to attribute the cause of wildfire damage to factors associated with fire officials and nature and did not attribute fire damage to their own actions (or inactions). The implications of these attributions are discussed as are recommendations for future fire education and communication.


Originally published by the Society of American Foresters. Publisher's PDF available through remote link.