Perceptions of Wildfire and Landscape Change in the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

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Environmental Management

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Despite a broad literature addressing the human dimensions of wildfire, current approaches often compartmentalize results according to disciplinary boundaries. Further, relatively few studies have focused on the public’s evolving perceptions of wildfire as communities change over time. This paper responds to these gaps by exploring perceptions of landscape dynamics and wildfire between 2003 and 2007 using a typological framework of intersecting ecological, social, and cultural processes. Designed as a restudy, and using key informant interviews, this research allowed us to observe risk perception as they are related to community challenges and opportunities in the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Risk perceptions were examined as an integral part of community and landscape change. Wildfire was a concern among informants in 2003 and remained a concern in 2007, although informants were less likely to discuss it as a major threat compared to the original study. Informants in the western part of the peninsula tended to express more concern about wildfire than their eastern counterparts largely due to their experiences with recent fires. Other important factors residents considered included changing forest fuels, the expanding wildland urban interface, and contrasting values of new residents. Underscoring the localized nature of risk perceptions, informants had difficulty describing the probability of a wildfire event in a geographical context broader than the community scale. This paper demonstrates how a holistic approach can help wildfire and natural resource professionals, community members, and other stakeholders understand the social and physical complexities influencing collective actions or inactions to address the threat of wildfire.

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