Natural Hazards

, Volume 88, Issue 3, pp 1473–1501 | Cite as

The smoke is rising but where is the fire? Exploring effective online map design for wildfire warnings

  • Yinghui Cao
  • Bryan J. Boruff
  • Ilona M. McNeill
Original Paper


The current study sought to offer guidance for developing effective web-based mapping tools for wildfire warnings by identifying (1) the important content for facilitating individuals’ decision-making, and (2) the optimal interface design for ensuring usability and ease of information access. A map-based warning tool was prototyped in the Australian context, followed by a usability and effectiveness evaluation through individual interviews and verbal protocol analysis to assess participants’ interaction with the mapping interface and information in response to the simulated warning scenario. The results demonstrated variations in participants’ approaches to wildfire warning response, revealing varied information needs. Specifically, most participants relied on their own assessment of the prospective threat, requiring specific wildfire-related information before eliciting a response. In contrast, the decision of a minority of the participants was motivated by response guidance from agencies, and accurate wildfire information was less important for their response. Imperative information for both types of residents therefore needs to be highlighted in a map-based warning tool to cater to a wide audience. Furthermore, a number of heuristics were identified for designing effective interactive functions to facilitate the control of, and access to, the various maps and textual information presented on the map-based warning interface.


Wildfire warnings Bush fire Public early warnings Visual warnings Map-based warnings Warning responses 



This work is a part of a Ph.D. project supported by the former Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre and the current Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre in Australia, the University of Western Australia, Austraining, and Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (Australia). Special thanks go to all the participants who generously contributed their time to the interviews.


  1. Andrienko N, Andrienko G, Voss H, Bernardo F, Hipolito J, Kretchmer U (2002) Testing the usability of interactive maps in CommonGIS. Cartogr Geogr Inf Sci 29:325–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arlikatti S, Lindell MK, Prater CS, Zhang Y (2006) Risk area accuracy and hurricane evacuation expectations of coastal residents. Environ Behav 38:226–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ash KD, Schumann RL III, Bowser GC (2014) Tornado warning trade-offs: evaluating choices for visually communicating risk. Weather Clim Soc 6:104–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Australian Government (2013) Australian Government Standard for the Common Alerting Protocol—Australian Profile. Accessed 20 June 2016
  5. Baker EJ (1991) Hurricane evacuation behavior. Int J Mass Emerg Disasters 9:287–310Google Scholar
  6. Broad K, Leiserowitz A, Weinkle J, Steketee M (2007) Misinterpretations of the “cone of uncertainty” in Florida during the 2004 hurricane season. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 88:651–667CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) (2016) California Fire Map. Accessed 8 April 2016
  8. Cao Y, Boruff BJ, Mcneill IM (2017) Towards personalised public early warnings: harnessing technological advancements to promote better individual decision making. Int J Digit Earth. doi: 10.1080/17538947.2017.1302007 Google Scholar
  9. Cao Y, Boruff BJ, McNeill IM (2016a) Defining sufficient household preparedness for active wildfire defence: toward an Australian baseline. Nat Hazards Rev 17:04015021CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cao Y, Boruff BJ, McNeill IM (2016b) Is a picture worth a thousand words? Evaluating the effectiveness of maps for delivering wildfire warning information. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct 19:179–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Casteel MA, Downing JR (2013) How individuals process NWS weather warning messages on their cell phones. Weather Clim Soc 5:254–265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chittaro L (2006) Visualizing information on mobile devices. Computer 39:40–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cox J, House D, Lindell M (2013) Visualizing uncertainty in predicted hurricane tracks. Int J Uncertain Quantif 3(2):143–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Crampton JW (2002) Interactivity types in geographic visualization. Cartogr Geogr Inf Sci 29:85–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) (2015a) Bushfire warnings: what should you do? Accessed 20 Oct 2015
  16. Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) (2015b) Fire danger rating and what it means to you. Government of Western Australia. Accessed 10 Feb 2016
  17. Dow K, Cutter SL (2000) Public orders and personal opinions: household strategies for hurricane risk assessment. Glob Environ Change Part B Environ Hazards 2:143–155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) (2014) National Review of Emergency Alert: consolidated report of findings December 2014. Ipsos, MelbourneGoogle Scholar
  19. Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) (2015) VicEmergency. Accessed 10 Oct 2015
  20. Ericsson KA, Simon HA (1993) Protocol analysis: verbal reports as data, rev edn. The MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  21. Gabbard JL, Hix D, Swan JE (1999) User-centered design and evaluation of virtual environments. IEEE Comput Graph Appl 19:51–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. GeoServer (2015) Accessed 10 Jan 2016
  23. Gladwin CH, Gladwin H, Peacock WG (2001) Modeling hurricane evacuation decisions with ethnographic methods. Int J Mass Emerg Disasters 19:117–143Google Scholar
  24. Google Crisis Response (2015) Google Crisis Map, US Wildfires. Accessed 15 May 2015
  25. Government of South Australia (2015) Alert SA. Accessed 10 Oct 2015
  26. Guha-Sapir D, Below R, Hoyois P (2015) EM-DAT: international disaster database. Université Catholique de Louvain. Accessed 06 June 2015
  27. Hagemeier-Klose M, Wagner K (2009) Evaluation of flood hazard maps in print and web mapping services as information tools in flood risk communication. Nat Hazards Earth Syst Sci 9:563–574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Handmer J, O’Neil S, Killalea D (2010) Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires. Centre for Risk and Community Safety RMIT University & Bushfire CRC, Melbourne. Accessed 10 Jan 2017
  29. Haynes K, Handmer J, McAneney J, Tibbits A, Coates L (2010) Australian bushfire fatalities 1900–2008: exploring trends in relation to the ‘prepare, stay and defend or leave early’ policy. Environ Sci Policy 13:185–194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Heath J, Nulsen C, Dunlop P, Clarke P, Burgelt P, Morrison D (2011) The February 2011 fires in Roleystone, Kelmscott and Red Hill. Bushfire CRC, Melbourne. Accessed 10 Jan 2017
  31. Hix D, Hartson HR (1993) Developing user interfaces: ensuring usability through product & process. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  32. James LR, Demaree RG, Wolf G (1984) Estimating within-group interrater reliability with and without response bias. J Appl Psychol 69:85–98. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.69.1.85 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kaplan B, Maxwell JA (2005) Qualitative research methods for evaluating computer information systems. In: Evaluating the organizational impact of healthcare information systems. Springer, New York, pp 30–55Google Scholar
  34. Kramer RM (1999) Trust and distrust in organizations: emerging perspectives, enduring questions. Annu Rev Psychol 50:569–598CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. LeBreton JM, Senter JL (2008) Answers to 20 questions about interrater reliability and interrater agreement. Organ Res Methods 11:815–852CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lieske DJ (2012) Towards a framework for designing spatial and non-spatial visualizations for communicating climate change risks. Geomatica 66:27–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lindell MK, Perry RW (1992) Behavioral foundations of community emergency planning. Hemisphere Publishing Corp, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  38. Lindell MK, Huang S-K, Wei H-L, Samuelson CD (2015a) Perceptions and expected immediate reactions to tornado warning polygons. Nat Hazards 80:683–707CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lindell MK, Prater CS, Gregg CE, Apatu EJ, Huang S-K, Wu HC (2015b) Households’ immediate responses to the 2009 American Samoa earthquake and tsunami. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct 12:328–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Llewellyn R (2012) Bushfires and Community Safety: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) Version 5.0. AFAC, Melbourne. Accessed 14 April 2013
  41. McLennan J (2014) Capturing community members’ bushfire experiences: interviews with residents following the 12 January 2012 Parkerville (WA) fire. Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, East Melbourne. Accessed 10 Jan 2017
  42. McLennan J, Elliott G (2012) ‘Wait and see’: the elephant in the community bushfire safety room? In: Proceedings of Bushfire CRC & AFAC 2012 Conference Research Forum. Accessed 10 Jan 2017
  43. McLennan J, Paton D, Wright L (2015) At-risk householders’ responses to potential and actual bushfire threat: an analysis of findings from seven Australian post-bushfire interview studies 2009–2014. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct 12:319–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McNeill IM, Dunlop PD, Skinner TC, Morrison DL (2015) Predicting delay in residents’ decisions on defending v. evacuating through antecedents of decision avoidance. Int J Wildland Fire 24:153–161Google Scholar
  45. Mileti DS, Peek L (2000) The social psychology of public response to warnings of a nuclear power plant accident. J Hazard Mater 75:181–194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mileti DS, Sorensen JH (1990) Communication of emergency public warnings: a social science perspective and state-of-the-art assessment. Oak Ridge National Lab, Oak RidgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. National Bushfire Warnings Taskforce (2009) Australia’s revised arrangements for bushfire advice and alerts—2009/2010 Fire Season. Accessed 15 Feb 2016
  48. National Hurricane Center (NHC) (2015) Definition of the NHC Track Forecast Cone. Accessed 12 Aug 2015
  49. National Weather Service (NWS) (2008) Why store-based warnings? Accessed 12 Aug 2015
  50. Nielsen J (1993) Usability engineering. Academic Press Inc, BostonGoogle Scholar
  51. Nivala A-M, Brewster S, Sarjakoski TL (2008) Usability evaluation of web mapping sites. Cartogr J 45:129–138. doi: 10.1179/174327708X305120 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. OpenLayers (2015) Accessed 10 Jan 2016
  53. Quarantelli EL (1984) Perceptions and reactions to emergency warnings of sudden hazards. Ekistics 51:511–515Google Scholar
  54. Rhodes A (2007) The Australian “Stay or Go” approach: factors influencing householder decisions. In: McCaffrey PWS, Robinson M (eds) Extended abstracts from the Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire conference. International Association of Wildland Fire, Fort CollinsGoogle Scholar
  55. Riad JK, Norris FH, Ruback RB (1999) Predicting evacuation in two major disasters: risk perception, social influence, and access to Resources1. J Appl Soc Psychol 29:918–934CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Richardson JTE (2010) Perceived academic quality and approaches to studying in higher education: evidence from Danish students of occupational therapy. Scand J Educ Res 54:189–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Robinson AC, Chen J, Lengerich EJ, Meyer HG, MacEachren AM (2005) Combining usability techniques to design geovisualization tools for epidemiology. Cartogr Geogr Inf Sci 32(4):243–255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Roth RE (2013) Interactive maps: what we know and what we need to know. J Spat Inf Sci 6:59–115Google Scholar
  59. Roth RE, Harrower M (2008) Addressing map interface usability: learning from the lakeshore nature preserve interactive map. Cartogr Perspect 60:46–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Ruginski IT, Boone AP, Padilla LM, Liu L, Heydari N, Kramer HS, Hegarty M, Thompson WB, House DG, Creem-Regehr SH (2016) Non-expert interpretations of hurricane forecast uncertainty visualizations. Spat Cogn Comput 16:154–172Google Scholar
  61. Smith CF, Kain DJ (2010) Making sense of hurricanes: public discourse and perceived risk of extreme weather. Crit Approaches Discourse Anal Across Discipl 4:180–196Google Scholar
  62. Steinmann R, Krek A, Blaschke T (2005) Can online map-based applications improve citizen participation? In: E-Government: towards electronic democracy. Springer, Berlin, pp 25–35Google Scholar
  63. Stewart DW, Shamdasani PN (2014) Focus groups: theory and practice, vol 20. Sage, Beverley HillsGoogle Scholar
  64. Teague B, McLeod R, Pascoe S (2010) 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission: final report. State Government of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Accessed 10 Jan 2017
  65. Tibbits A, Whittaker J (2007) Stay and defend or leave early: policy problems and experiences during the 2003 Victorian bushfires. Environ Hazards 7:283–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Trigg J, Rainbird S, Thompson K, Bearman C, Wright L, McLennan J (2015) Capturing community experiences: South Australian bushfires January 2014. Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Melbourne. Accessed 15 Jan 2017
  67. Whittaker J, MacLennan J, Elliott G, Gilbert J, Handmer J, Haynesm K, Coulishaw S (2009) Victorian 2009 Bushfire Research Response: final report. Research Results from February 7th Victorian Fires Report on: Human Behaviour & Community Safety. Bushfire Cooperative Reserach Center, Melbourne. Accessed 10 Jan 2017
  68. Wu HC, Lindell MK, Prater CS, Samuelson CD (2014) Effects of track and threat information on judgments of hurricane strike probability. Risk Anal 34:1025–1039CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Wu HC, Lindell MK, Prater CS (2015a) Strike probability judgments and protective action recommendations in a dynamic hurricane tracking task. Nat Hazards 79:355–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Wu HC, Lindell MK, Prater CS (2015b) Process tracing analysis of hurricane information displays. Risk Anal 35:2202–2220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Zhang Y, Prater CS, Lindell MK (2004) Risk area accuracy and evacuation from Hurricane Bret. Nat Hazards Rev 5:115–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yinghui Cao
    • 1
  • Bryan J. Boruff
    • 1
  • Ilona M. McNeill
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Agriculture and EnvironmentThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.Melbourne School of Psychological SciencesThe University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations