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Using Social Capital To Promote And Improve Community Preparedness For Wildfires

Across the country, government agencies, NGOs and communities are coming together to manage their forests to reduce the risk of wildfire in the wildland urban interface. However, to have long-term impacts, communities must have the foundation necessary to continue these efforts after special programs have moved on or outside funding has been exhausted. Social capital may be one important component in sustaining wildfire preparedness as actions to increase wildfire preparedness are affected by decisions made at the individual and the community level. This study focuses on the essential components of social capital that are crucial in affecting community participation in wildfire preparedness and mitigation. In order to understand these relationships, a pilot study was developed to explore how perceptions of community preparedness efforts vary geographically in different ecosystems, forest types and USDA Forest Service regions at the national scale. Additionally, the study explores differences in perceptions of community preparedness between stakeholder groups, such as residents, fire officials, land managers, business/community leaders, and environmental advocates. Since preparedness involves both individual actions at the residential scale, as well as community actions such as planning and zoning, separate survey instruments were developed for local residents and community and government agency leaders. The study also analyzed the effect of variables like place attachment, past experience and previous involvement with wildfires, length and type of stay in the community, and affiliation with local organizations on creation or enhancement social capital as well as wildfire preparedness in the community in terms of change in defensible space actions, and change in people' attitudes, understanding and outlook towards mitigation efforts over the years. This research has incorporated a mixed methods approach integrating both quantitative and qualitative research techniques because of the dual aspect of the research questions regarding the measure of social capital as well as the level of preparedness in the communities. Results from the pilot study conducted in six communities across the United States are discussed as the final outcome of this larger national scale project. Ultimately, the study provides insights about the underlying community variables that influence community preparedness actions and awareness about wildfire.
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