Building social capital to address the threat of wildfire
Last updated 4/5/2022 at Noon
The pandemic has revealed a growing rift in Sisters Country between those who trust government institutions and view state mandates as necessary to combat COVID-19, and those who generally distrust government and believe mandates only serve to restrict their personal freedom.
This rift has led to a decline in local social capital, which requires trust in social institutions and reflects a community’s sense of solidarity and willingness to engage in collective action. Social capital is always built upon the strength of the relationships in a community.
Social capital is critical to a community because it helps individuals achieve things that they might not have been able to achieve otherwise, such as obtaining job information, developing shared social norms that result in safer communities, and reducing wildfire risk.
As social capital grows, individuals become more willing to attend meetings and interact with others in their community.
One expert has proposed that the best way to rebuild social capital is through an incremental process that pulls people out of their (pandemic) isolation, increases interactions with others, improves connectedness, and ultimately increases personal responsibility.
Working together to mitigate the risk of wildfires, while supported in our efforts by community leaders and resource managers, might help us to repair our frayed relationships and restore social capital.
“Research led by Oregon State University shows that fires are more likely to burn their way into national forests than out of them,” underscoring the need for all of us to step up to mitigate wildfire risk, a recent news report suggests.
Think regionally, act locally
To understand how rural communities in fire-prone areas could become more resilient to the effects of climate change, researchers in 2017 surveyed residents of newly incorporated La?Pine and unincorporated Greater Crescent (Gilchrist, Crescent, and Crescent Lake).
Residents were asked for their position on global climate change: Were they alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive?
The largest group of La?Pine residents felt disengaged (38.4 percent), while the largest group of Greater Crescent residents felt cautious (27.7 percent). Few residents were outright dismissive of global climate change.
When asked about the potential regional risk climate change posed to their economy, recreation, culture, natural resources, and natural hazards, residents in both communities were primarily concerned with climate change’s impact on natural resources and natural hazards.
Since information about climate change comes mostly from the federal government and its associated researcher partners, residents in La Pine and Greater Crescent who distrust government, as reflected in the sources they rely upon for news, were less receptive to appeals for action to mitigate wildfire danger that relied upon a belief in global climate change.
This led the authors of the study to recommend that community leaders and natural resource managers focus their appeal to local citizens to join them in wildfire mitigation by asking them about their perception of the risk of increased severity and number of future wildfires, rather than asking about their belief in global climate change and its impact on wildfire risk.
Climate action steps increase a community’s climate change resiliency, regardless of the motivation of community members.
Community education programs
One study looked at the effectiveness of community education programs to improve wildfire preparation, by surveying seven Florida communities in fire-prone areas that had participated in wildfire education programs.
The authors concluded that more successful community-education programs emphasize interpersonal interactions. Examples included scheduling a community workday or a neighborhood appreciation day that brought together friends and other community members.
It was particularly effective to have individuals who had taken actions around their home to reduce wildfire risk talk with their peers at these events about the steps they took, what motivated them to do so, and why it was a good idea for others to get involved.
- People who perceive greater social capital in their community are more likely to take action around their homes to create defensible space and reduce wildfire risk.
- People who perceive greater social capital in their communities are more likely to participate in activities to increase their knowledge and skills on wildfire mitigation.
- People who stated that talking to neighborhood friends or to a community leader influenced them to take steps to reduce wildfire risk perceived greater social capital than those who did not credit friends and leaders.