How the 2020 wildfires shaped Oregonians’ behavior and policy support

Hilary Boudet, Leanne Giordono, Muhammad Usman Amin Siddiqi, Greg Stelmach, Chad Zanocco, and June Flora

One year ago, we reported on initial findings from a survey of Oregonians that we conducted in the wake of the September 2020 wildfires. The survey was administered from 28 December, 2020, through 23 February, 2021, to a sample of 1,308 Oregonians whose distribution of gender, age, and education mirrored that of the general Oregon population. In the survey, we asked Oregonians about their experience with the wildfires, their attitudes and beliefs about the link between the wildfires and climate change, their behaviors related to personal and property protection, and their support for policies designed to reduce the risk from future wildfires. Since our initial report, we conducted several additional analyses to examine the demographic and other factors associated with disaster preparedness, community actions, and policy support.

Factors associated with disaster preparedness and community actions

Ninety percent of our survey respondents reported engaging in at least one personal action to prepare for future events, and 44% reported either donating to or volunteering with a group responding to the 2020 wildfires (Figure 1). Respondents who were male, living in rural areas, or had vulnerable individuals in their households were significantly more likely to have taken a greater number of actions to prepare for future wildfires. People from higher-income households were more likely to report that they donated or volunteered.

Figure 1. Disaster preparedness and community actions.

Social and media interactions and harm experienced from the wildfires were also linked to disaster preparedness and community actions. Respondents who sought information about the wildfires from more sources (e.g., television news, local newspapers, online sources); talked more frequently with friends and family about the wildfires; and thought that higher percentages of their friends, neighbors, and community members were taking actions to prepare for future wildfires were more likely to report preparedness and community actions. Those who reported experiencing a higher degree of harm from the wildfires also reported taking more of these actions. Although neither disaster preparedness nor community actions were associated with respondents’ political ideology, those who reported more concern about climate change after experiencing the 2020 wildfires were also more likely to report preparedness and community actions. These results suggest that information seeking, communication, and experience affect actions after wildfires.

Drivers of support for climate policies

Among our respondents, 59–89% reported strong support for policies designed to mitigate carbon emissions (Figure 2), and 50–93% reported strong support for adaptation policies designed to limit the impacts of future extreme events (Figure 3). Common drivers of support for both types of policies, mitigation and adaptation, included political ideology, perceived causes of the wildfires, and climate change concern. Conservatives expressed less support for both types of climate policies than liberals, whereas more support was expressed by individuals who attributed the wildfires primarily to climate change and those who reported more concern about climate change after experiencing the 2020 wildfires. However, the effects differed in magnitude. Political ideology was more strongly associated with support for mitigation policies than with support for adaptation policies, whereas causal attribution and climate change concern were more strongly associated with adaptation-policy support. Our results suggest that attitudes toward adaptation policies may be less politicized than attitudes toward mitigation policies.  

Figure 2. Public support for climate mitigation policies.

We also found evidence of associations between demographic characteristics and policy support. Respondents living in rural areas, compared to those in more urban settings, expressed less support for mitigation policies and selected adaptation policies – especially stricter building codes, property buyouts, and public safety power shutoffs (when utility companies shut off electricity to limit wildfire risk). These results may reflect the locally accrued costs of these adaptation policies, which are likely to place more burden on rural residents, especially homeowners, than on urban residents.

Figure 3. Public support for climate adaptation policies.

With respect to support for public safety power shutoffs, we also found a link between respondents’ exposure to poor air quality during the wildfires, as measured by nearby air quality monitoring stations, and support for shutoffs. Survey respondents who experienced the worst air quality during the 2020 Oregon wildfire season were more likely to support public safety power shutoffs, whereas those who were in areas with better air quality were less likely to support the shutoffs. Although public safety power shutoffs are only one among many means of reducing wildfire risk, high levels of support, especially among those who were exposed to wildfire smoke, suggest that Oregonians may be receptive to public safety power shutoffs.

We observed that individuals who attributed the wildfires primarily to climate change tended to express consistently lower support for various adaptation policies than those who attributed the wildfires to a more-diverse set of causes. This suggests a reluctance among individuals who attributed the wildfires almost solely to climate change to shift from mitigation-oriented solutions to adaptation-oriented solutions. Our results suggest that Oregonians took personal and community actions in the wake of the wildfires to better protect themselves from future events and to help their communities recover. The results also suggest relative high levels of support for climate policies designed to limit emissions (mitigation) and the impacts of future extreme events (adaptation). Nevertheless, people took different paths to these actions and support. Policy support, especially for or against mitigation policy, appeared more strongly related to political ideology, whereas personal preparedness and community actions were more strongly tied to information seeking, social interactions, perceived norms, and event experience.

Hilary Boudet is an associate professor and Associate Director of Graduate Programs at the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. Her research interests include environmental and energy policy, natural resource sociology, social movements, and public participation in energy and environmental decision-making.

Leanne Giordono is a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University. She is working with Hilary Boudet on the Smart & Connected Kids for Sustainable Energy Communities project. She completed her Ph.D. in public policy at Oregon State University in 2018.

Muhammad Usman Amin Siddiqi is a Fulbright Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University.

Greg Stelmach is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University.

Chad Zanocco is a postdoctoral scholar in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He completed his Ph.D. in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University.

June Flora is a senior research scientist at Stanford University.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Khizar Hayat says:

    Excellent research

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