Oregonians’ Views on the 2020 Wildfires and Climate Change

Sociologist Hilary Boudet and her team share their research on how Oregonians were affected by the 2020 wildfire season

Hilary Boudet, Rachel Mooney, Leanne Giordono, and Greg Stelmach

The impacts of the 2020 wildfires that affected much of the Pacific Northwest and western United States far exceeded those in recent memory. The fires burned more than 1.2 million acres (4850 km2) in Oregon and 700,000 acres (2830 km2) in Washington, contributing to 64.7 million person-days of hazardous air quality across the Pacific Northwest (Deepti Singh, personal communication). In Oregon, several communities, including Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Talent, and Phoenix, experienced devastating losses. Nine Oregonians died, and over 4,000 homes were destroyed. Tens of thousands more Oregonians experienced evacuation warnings or orders, and large areas of Oregon, Washington, California were blanketed by smoke for days to weeks. 

As researchers, we sought to better understand how Oregonians were affected by the wildfires to inform future fire preparedness and responses in the region. From December 28, 2020 through February 23, 2021, we surveyed 1,308 Oregon residents whose distribution of gender, age, and education mirrored that of the general Oregon population. In our survey, we asked respondents about harms they experienced from the fires, how they sought information about the fires at the time, what they believe caused the fires, the actions they intend to take to protect their property in the future, and their support for policies aimed at reducing future fire risks.

Here, we discuss some preliminary results from this survey. Our survey emphasized the considerable proportion of Oregonians who were affected by the 2020 wildfires. Almost half (47%) of respondents reported that they received evacuation alerts (Figure 1), and a similar percentage (44%) reported that they were exposed to hazardous air quality (Figure 2). 

Understanding information channels between government officials and residents is essential not only in the short-term during a hazardous event, but also over the long-term to improve communication about risk and safety.  To obtain information about wildfires during the events, 75% of our respondents watched local television news and weather broadcasts, and about 60% consulted online sources, such as Facebook and Twitter, or checked city, county, and state websites. About a third (35%) of respondents listed local newspapers or local radio as sources of information. 

Civic engagement among Oregonians during the wildfires was high. The vast majority of respondents (96%) spoke with family or friends about the wildfires, and sizable percentages either donated to one or more groups responding to the wildfires (41%) or volunteered their services (15%).

Respondents also took individual actions to prepare for future wildfires. Between 35% and 40% of respondents reported that they assembled a disaster or evacuation kit, created a disaster or evacuation plan, registered for community emergency alerts, or purchased masks or improved their air filtration system. Fewer respondents (15-20%) reported that they removed live or dead vegetation  that was close to structures, and 5% reported that they replaced flammable materials on their homes. These responses suggest that there still are opportunities to encourage and support individuals in preparing their properties and families to better withstand future fires.

We asked several questions about the linkages our respondents inferred between the wildfires, climate change, and other causes. Clear majorities of respondents reported that human carelessness (80%), lack of proper forest management (62%), and climate change (61%) had contributed “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” to the fires (Figure 3). In contrast, a minority (41%) cited increased development of forested areas as contributing “a great deal” or “a moderate amount”. These results suggest that many Oregonians view climate change as a contributor to extreme wildfires and also regard other factors as important. A majority of respondents also reported that experiencing the wildfires made them more concerned about climate change (52%) and that they thought climate change has made fires in Oregon more frequent (68%) (Figure 4). Although almost half of our respondents indicated that the wildfires did not change their level of concern about climate change (45%), indicating that climate change views may not be affected by experiences with extreme events, few respondents reported being less concerned about climate change as a result of the experience (4%). 

We asked survey respondents about their support for local policies designed to make communities more resilient to future wildfires, such as property buyouts in high-risk areas, public safety power shutoffs (electricity curtailment by utility companies to limit wildfire risk), changes to local land-use planning (such as requiring buffer zones, setback lines, or fire breaks), stricter building codes (such as requiring flame-resistant roofs, decks, or siding), and changes to forest management (Figure 5). Respondents expressed the most support for changes to forest management (93% “support” or “strongly support”), changes to local land-use planning (91%), stricter building codes (84%), and public safety power shutoffs (76%), whereas buyouts received the least support (50%). These levels of policy support are quite high and suggest a public desire for action.

Oregonians were heavily impacted by the September 2020 wildfires via both direct exposure and evacuation orders. The wildfires were a salient event for most respondents, and Oregonians turned to a variety of traditional and online sources for information about the event. Civic engagement in response to the wildfires was high in terms of short-term interactions, donations and longer-term planning, including preparation for future events. Oregonians attributed the wildfires to a combination of causes, and most reported that climate change has contributed to the frequency of such events. A considerable share of Oregonians began to take personal actions to limit the damage from future events, and support for local adaptation policies is high.

These observations suggest that the September 2020 Oregon wildfires may offer a window of opportunity for local and state policymakers and advocates to continue developing communication channels, educate the public about personal adaptation and disaster-prevention actions, and pursue public policy oriented toward both climate change adaptation and mitigation. As a next step, we will continue to explore how these preferences may differ among demographic groups and other relevant factors.

Hilary Boudet is an Associate Professor and Associate Director of Graduate Programs at the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. She teaches courses on energy and society, social movements, policy theory and research methods. Her research interests include environmental and energy policy, natural resource sociology, social movements, and public participation in energy and environmental decision-making.

Rachel Mooney graduated from University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire with her BSc in Chemistry. She is currently pursuing her Master of Public Policy degree and working with Hilary Boudet to analyze public perceptions of liquid natural gas export in the Pacific Northwest.

Leanne Giordono is a postdoctoral scholar at OSU working with Hilary Boudet on the Smart & Connected Kids for Sustainable Energy Communities project. She completed her PhD student in the School of Public Policy at OSU in 2018.

Greg Stelmach completed his Master of Public Policy degree at OSU in 2019, working on the Smart & Connected Kids for Sustainable Energy Communities project. He is now a PhD student in Public Policy at OSU. He has been working with Hilary Boudet on research related to public views of fossil fuel export.

Featured Image: Photograph of forest fire by Ervins Strauhmanis, licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Acknowledgements: This research was funded by CIRC, a member of the NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).


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