Southern Research Station Headquarters - Asheville, NC
Main Logo of Southern Research Station, Stating: Southern Research Station - Asheville, NC, with a saying of 'Science you can use!'
[Images] Five photos of different landscape

Compass issue 13
Download issue 14 PDF

Compass is a quarterly publication of the USDA Forest Service's Southern Research Station (SRS). As part of the Nation's largest forestry research organization -- USDA Forest Service Research and Development -- SRS serves 13 Southern States and beyond. The Station's 130 scienists work in more than 20 units located across the region at Federal laboratories, universites, and experimental forests.

Small logo of the USDASmall logo of the Forest Service Shield

Issue 14

Who's Worried About Fire?

by Zoë Hoyle

Like other animals, humans are deeply wired to respond to the smell of smoke, for where there’s smoke, there’s usually danger. In the forest, wildfire moves fast, often too fast for us to outrun.

Until well into the second half of the 20th century, many forest managers and most of the American public believed that forest fires should be completely suppressed, every fire—no matter how remote—put out as soon as it could be reached.


Over the last 50 years, attitudes towards forest fire have changed. Resource managers have come to regard fire as a natural disturbance, and for some forests, as necessary to ecosystem health. Even more important for those who live in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, managers have learned that periodic fires reduce the fuel loads that could lead to the catastrophic wildfires that can threaten homes and lives. The concept of prescribed fire, a “treatment” designed to contribute to forest health, is now widely accepted.

Forests cover more than 60 percent of most states in the South, one of the fastest growing areas in the United States in terms of population. This means that the wildland-urban interface, more prone to wildland fire than other land uses, makes up an increasing part of the southern landscape.

The South is also increasingly more diverse culturally. Hispanic, African-American, Asian, and other minority populations are growing rapidly, and by 2020, are projected to make up close to 40 percent of the population of the region. Studies have shown that different ethnic and cultural groups have different perceptions of how natural resources should be managed, but up until now there’s been little work done to assess differences in perceptions about using prescribed fire as a management tool.

Concerned About Effects

SRS researchers Mike Bowker, Cassandra Johnson, and Ken Cordell, along with university collaborators Siew Lim, Gary Green, and Sandra Rideout-Hanzak (former SRS scientist) used data from a recent version of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment to look at how culture affects perceptions and attitudes about fire and fire management in the South. When they analyzed the results, they found definite variations among respondents from the three most prominent ethnic groups in the South—African- Americans, Hispanics, and whites— about prescribed fire and its effects.

“The purpose of the southwide survey was to provide policymakers with a broad picture of public opinion on prescribed fire among major ethnic groups in the Southern United States,” says Bowker, SRS research social scientist based in Athens, GA. “The goal is to enhance agency communications with the public and to gain acceptance of prescribed fire as a fuel control program.”

Though overall most survey respondents agreed that public land managers and forest professionals can be trusted to choose the best methods for dealing with fire, African- American and Hispanic agreement was lower. African-Americans and Hispanics were also less likely to support prescribed fire as a management tool, and were more concerned about fire effects—harm to wildlife, reduced scenic quality, and smoke—than whites. Females across all groups also tended to be more concerned about the effects of prescribed fire than males. In addition, although level of education had no effect on preference for prescribed fire in general, concern over side effects diminished as education increased.

“Though we found that concern over the side effects of prescribed fire diminished as education level increased, it doesn’t mean that more education leads to environmental knowledge,” cautions Bowker. “The whole correlation between education and environmental knowledge needs to be more carefully examined.”

One reason for differences among groups may have to do with ethnic environmental beliefs and backgrounds, an area that social environmental science has only started to explore. Another factor uncovered in the survey was local private forest land coverage. According to the survey data, as the presence of private forest land increases in the area a respondent lives in, so does distrust in the use of fire as a management tool. This result may indicate a lack of confidence in the expertise of private land owners or managers, distrust of state liability laws, or a lack of communication between residents and private land managers.

“Our statistical evidence suggests that ethnicity does matter when it comes to prescribed fire,” says Bowker. “To gain wide public support and trust, land managers and owners should be aware of these differences, and fuel control programs should be tailored with the concerns and preferences of the local community in mind.”

For more information:

Mike Bowker at 706–559–4271 or

For more about the wildland-urban interface in the South, see issue 7 of Compass, online at compass/issue7/.

Recommended reading:

Bowker, J.M.; Lim, S.H.; Cordell, H.K. [and others]. 2008. Wildland fire, risk, and recovery: results of a national survey with regional and racial perspectives. Journal of Forestry. 106(5): 268–276.

Lim, S.H.; Bowker, J.M.; Johnson, C.Y.; Cordell, H.K. 2009. Perspectives on prescribed fire in the south: does ethnicity matter? Southern Journal of Applied Forestry. 33(1): 17–24.