UNIVERSITY PARK - This season's devastating wildfires in the western U.S. may seem far away, but understanding how homeowners, even those in the East, perceive wildfire can help western states better prepare for saving homes, according to a social forestry expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Al Luloff, professor of rural sociology and human dimensions of natural resources and the environment, said understanding risks and concerns related to wildfire is essential.
"Our forests are more than trees," he said. "They're fresh air and clean water, which lead to abundant fish and wildlife. By studying perceptions of wildfire risk, we can help save communities and people."
With colleagues from Mississippi State University and Cornell University, Luloff interviewed residents about perceptions of wildfire risk and actions taken to prevent or minimize it. Researchers interviewed residents in five northeastern states, including Pennsylvania. The findings were described in an article recently published in the Journal of Forestry.
Results showed that 40 percent of those interviewed believed their communities were unaware of the wildfire dangers and therefore unconcerned about the issue. The highest percentage of unaware and unconcerned residents was in Pennsylvania.
Luloff said wildfires in the northeast are not frequent but can be as devastating as those in the west. Much of the land there is government-owned, but a majority of the forestland in the east is under private ownership.
There are 17 million acres of forestland in Pennsylvania, with 12 million of those acres owned by private individuals and investors. Forty percent of private forestland owners in the state own less than 10 acres, and many of these people own only one or two acres of forest.
With the popularity of seasonal recreation in forested areas, such as the Poconos, many people have winterized their summer and/or seasonal homes and have become permanent residents. This development in nonmetropolitan areas dominated by woods and other natural amenities has contributed to the pattern known as the "wildland-urban interface," Luloff said. More homes in the woods and nonmetropolitan areas were built, and many gated communities emerged.
Often, the result of this development pattern has led to a culture clash between traditional forestry, timber and logging industries and new residents who built homes in forested areas. This new public is far less familiar with forestry practices.
Seeing forest management practices that they may not understand leads to misunderstandings and possibly criticism from the public, according to Luloff. Also, a lack of concern about wildfire could lead to increased risk due to a lack of preparedness.
Luloff said the recent Colorado wildfires resulted in the loss of around 400 homes.
"That's a tragedy no matter how you cut it," he said. "Plus, people died on the ground and while fighting it."
Large fires in the northeast are rare. However, changing forest and climate conditions - combined with more people living in and close to forests - may increase risk.
"It's not a benign issue - doing nothing is doing something," he continued. "The question is, how can we get people to do a lot and minimize the risk of wildfire?"
The study was funded by the U.S. Forest Service.