Situating Hazard Vulnerability: People’s Negotiations with Wildfire Environments in the U.S. Southwest

Abstract

This article is based on a multimethod study designed to clarify influences on wildfire hazard vulnerability in Arizona’s White Mountains, USA. Findings reveal that multiple factors operating across scales generate socially unequal wildfire risks. At the household scale, conflicting environmental values, reliance on fire insurance and firefighting institutions, a lack of place dependency, and social vulnerability (e.g., a lack of financial, physical, and/or legal capacity to reduce risks) were found to be important influences on wildfire risk. At the regional-scale, the shift from a resource extraction to environmental amenity-based economy has transformed ecological communities, produced unequal social distributions of risks and resources, and shaped people’s social and environmental interactions in everyday life. While working-class locals are more socially vulnerable than amenity migrants to wildfire hazards, they have also been more active in attempting to reduce risks in the aftermath of the disastrous 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire. Social tensions between locals and amenity migrants temporarily dissolved immediately following the disaster, only to be exacerbated by the heightened perception of risk and the differential commitment to hazard mitigation displayed by these groups over a 2-year study period. Findings suggest that to enhance wildfire safety, environmental managers should acknowledge the environmental benefits associated with hazardous landscapes, the incentives created by risk management programs, and the specific constraints to action for relevant social groups in changing human-environmental context.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Kevin McHugh, Pat Gober, Eric Keys, Stephen Pyne, Sara Grineski, and Cristina Morales as well as Virginia Dale and the anonymous referees for their constructive comments and suggestions on drafts culminating in the completion of this article. Those who made the field component of this research possible must be recognized, including Sue Sisson, and members of the Natural Resources Working Group and the White Mountain Stewardship Project Multi-Party Community Monitoring Board. We are also grateful for the financial support that made this work feasible. The article stems from research funded by a Mathew G. Bailey Scholarship, a Graduate and Professional Student Association Dissertation Research Grant, a Millennium Interdisciplinary Dissertation Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training in Urban Ecology Fellowship, all through Arizona State University; an Association of American Geographers Dissertation Research Grant; and the City of Show Low, Arizona. All errors and omissions are the authors’ responsibility.

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Correspondence to Timothy W. Collins.

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Collins, T.W., Bolin, B. Situating Hazard Vulnerability: People’s Negotiations with Wildfire Environments in the U.S. Southwest. Environmental Management 44, 441–455 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-009-9333-5

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Keywords

  • Wildfire
  • Hazard
  • Vulnerability
  • Environment
  • Multimethod research
  • U.S. Southwest