Boulder, Colorado - The vast majority of people living in areas prone to wildfires know they face risk, but they tend to underestimate that risk compared with wildfire professionals.

At the same time, they tend to over-estimate the importance of specific risk factors beyond their control - such as the composition of vegetation on their property - while giving less heed to those they can mitigate, such as replacing combustible siding with more fire-resistant materials.

Those are key findings of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the West Region Wildfire Council. The team’s findings, published in the journal Risk Analysis in June, are based on surveys of nearly 300 residents of Log Hill Village in southwestern Colorado’s Ouray County in 2012.

“A lot of natural hazards research finds that people tend to overweight things they have pretty limited control over. But they are downplaying the risk of things they can do something about, such as creating a ‘defensible space’ and what kind of siding they have,” said James Meldrum, the study's lead author and a research associate in the environment and society program at the university’s Institute of Behavioral Science.

But identifying such gaps in perception may be able to help wildfire professionals better communicate risks and design incentives to get homeowners to better protect their properties.

“The reality is that there is not enough (wildfire) suppression to go around to protect every house that is out there,” said Meldrum.

Overall, 93 percent of respondents answered “yes” when asked, “Are you concerned about wildfire risk affecting your current residence?”

But expert and residential opinion differed significantly.

While 50 percent of residents rated their properties as being at “moderate risk,” professionals rated 65 percent as being at “high risk.” Fifty-three percent underrated their wildfire risk relative to the professionals, and 18 percent overrated risk.

Digging deeper, researchers gauged residents’ perception of specific risks in 10 categories, including risk from vegetation type on the property, the type of materials used for roofing, and questions regarding accessibility to firefighting teams and equipment, such as the visibility of the address number.

Residents’ perception of risk was less than that assessed by professionals for five attributes - address visibility, deck type, siding type, distance to hazardous vegetation and distance to other combustible hazards (such as propane tanks).

The professionals and residents rated risk roughly the same for number of roads accessing a property and distance to problematic topography, such as a steep canyon or ridge, and roof type.

In two categories, vegetation type and driveway width, residents reported higher risk perception than the professionals.

Paradoxically, residents tended to fret more about things they couldn’t change, such as the vegetation profile, than those they could, such as rebuilding a deck or cutting down trees near their homes.

“A lot of people do see the costs of being able to do the work themselves, and that stops them from doing it,” Meldrum said. “They might want to, but when push comes to shove, they don’t necessarily do it.”

He said the good news is that financial incentives offered by communities or governments have been fairly effective at persuading people to take action to protect their properties.

“So we can recognize these gaps for what they are and put money toward programs to help push people into taking action,” he said.

That’s the idea behind Fire Adapted Communities, a coalition of government, business and nonprofit entities “committed to helping people and communities in the wildland-urban interface adapt to living with wildfire and reduce their risk for damage, without compromising firefighter or civilian safety.”

That campaign recognizes that wildfire is a natural part of many landscapes, and that the emphasis on suppression that held sway for most of the 20th century in the United States unintentionally resulted in fuel buildups that led to more catastrophic fires.

“The idea that fire does belong on these landscapes is integral to the Fire Adapted Communities concept,” Meldrum said. “This is a big, top-down effort to get communities to recognize this, to take responsibility for the fact that they live in these places, and not be dependent on suppression. We want you to be OK if suppression can’t reach you.”

Collaborating researchers on the study are Hannah Brenkert-Smith, also of IBS; Patricia A. Champ and Travis Warziniack at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station; Christopher M. Barth of the Bureau of Land Management; and Lilia C. Falk at the West Region Wildfire Council.

The U.S. Interagency National Fire Plan funded the research.