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Project ID: 16-1-02-5

Year: 2016

Date Started: 08/01/2016

Ending Date:  07/31/2019

Title: Firescapes in the mid-Atlantic: Mismatches between social perceptions and prescribed fire use

Project Proposal Abstract: Our project will catalyze research on social barriers and facilitators of current prescribed fire management practices in the mid-Atlantic region. Little is known about social barriers and facilitators that influence prescribed fire implementation in the mid-Atlantic U.S. Prescribed fire is broadly implemented in the western and southeastern U.S., where fire-prone ecosystems dominate the landscape, however only 4% of social science studies about fire in the U.S. have occurred in the Northeast. This is despite the fact that wildland urban interface (WUI) is pervasive in the area, and risks of fire from people, in addition to baseline risk from natural causes, is high. Moreover, across the mid-Atlantic, prescribed fire use is motivated by numerous factors in addition to mitigation of fire risk, including ecosystem restoration for biodiversity and game habitat. The complexity and heterogeneity of governance structures and land ownership, the relative dearth of community programs, combined with the complexity of fire ecologies and fire management in the region, indicates the critical and timely importance of focusing on social studies in the mid-Atlantic, which may in fact differ from patterns elsewhere in the U.S. Moreover, the social exposure to fire is changing as fire is emerging as a relatively new landscape management tool in some areas, where regulator constraints have been recently relaxed. Our overarching hypothesis is that there are spatially and temporally contextualized mismatches between community perceptions of fire behavior, ecological impacts, and prescribed fire operations in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. and the realities of its current and potential use in landscape management. We will explore social and management-driven perspectives of prescribed fire use across a gradient of pyrogenic to non-pyrogenic forests, individuals and residential/social settings where fire is a nascent operational tool and where prescribed fire use is established. Our work will result in a synthesis of prescribed fire treatment effectiveness across forest locations in the mid-Atlantic, and surveys of perceptions of burning activity by surrounding communities, both of which will be shared with managers at study locations and in broader outreach forums such as the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange. We will produce a video about prescribed fire management and community interactions through WPSU, a public broadcasting company of Penn State University. We will also hold two workshops to conduct focus groups, hold field trips, and conduct interviews with community members. We will produce model results forecasting management outcomes under stakeholder-described scenarios. Together with our social science data, we will use optimization theory that evaluate management effectiveness relative to social perceptions of risk to assess tradeoffs in decision making and help prioritize treatment activity and outreach activities. We will work collaboratively with the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers as part of the Fire Learning Network. Our work will also enhance partnerships among state- and federal-level agencies, universities, and NGOs. At the broader scale proposed here, we will characterize mismatches through an anticipatory approach, characterizing the conditions where and when social communication and awareness are likely to become more needed in the future as prescribed fire becomes more common following regulatory relaxation.

Principal Investigator: Erica A. Smithwick

Agency/Organization: Pennsylvania State University

Branch or Dept: Department of Geography

Other Project Collaborators




Branch or Dept

Agreements Contact

Susan A. Lavan

Pennsylvania State University

College of Earth & Mineral Sciences

Budget Contact

Susan A. Lavan

Pennsylvania State University

College of Earth & Mineral Sciences

Co-Principal Investigator

Margot W. Kaye

Pennsylvania State University

Ecosystem Science & Management

Co-Principal Investigator

Peter B. Newman

Pennsylvania State University

Department of Geography

Co-Principal Investigator

Alan H. Taylor

Pennsylvania State University

Department of Geography

Co-Principal Investigator

Katherine Y. Zipp

Pennsylvania State University

Department of Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology

Project Locations

Fire Science Exchange Network

North Atlantic








Project Deliverables

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There are no deliverables available for this project.

Supporting Documents

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