Baptism by Wildfire? Wildfire Experiences and Public Support for Wildfire Adaptation Policies

AuthorBruce E. Cain,Anne M. Driscoll,Angela Zhao,Iris Hui
Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(1) 108 –116
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211023926
In recent years, wildfires have ravaged the landscape in
many Western American states, especially California.
According to CALFire statistics, in 2018 alone, there were
7,948 California wildfire incidents that burned about
1,975,086 acres of land, destroyed 24,226 structures, and
claimed the lives of at least 100 people. In 2020, the number
of incidents increased to 9,639, with 4,177,856 acres of land
burned and over 30 fatalities. If global warming accelerates
as predicted (IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, 2014; Karl &
Trenberth, 2003), wildfires will become more frequent and
intense (Diffenbaugh et al., 2017; Easterling et al., 2000;
Planton et al., 2008). At the same time, increasing numbers
of people continue to move into California’s fire-prone wild-
land-urban interface areas, increasing the risks of human-
caused ignitions, property loss, and deaths (Fried et al., 2004;
Goss et al., 2020; Hurteau et al., 2014; Westerling & Bryant,
2008; Westerling et al., 2011). Making matters worse, the
massive emissions from these fires have undermined
California’s ambitious efforts at decarbonization.
But will these horrific wildfire experiences increase pub-
lic support for climate change resilience measures? Many
studies have explored whether and how personal weather
experiences affect the public’s attitudes about climate
change, with very mixed results to date (see Howe et al.,
2019). Some of them utilized subjective reports of personal
experiences and weather perceptions (Egan & Mullin, 2012;
Hamilton & Stampone, 2013; Howe et al., 2013; Li et al.,
2011), while others employed objective contextual measures
of extreme weather (Hamilton et al., 2016; Howe et al., 2014;
Konisky et al., 2016). However, neither approach consis-
tently finds a relationship between extreme weather experi-
ences and climate change beliefs.
To date, there have been fewer studies exploring the con-
nection between personal experience with extreme weather
and climate adaptation policies (Demski et al., 2017). If the
scientific projections are correct, communities in California
and other Western states will need to take more proactive steps
to protect themselves from heightened wildfire threats. Will
they be able to do so given the strong partisan divide over cli-
mate change issues? One recent paper using precinct-level
APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211023926American Politics ResearchHui et al.
1Stanford University, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Iris Hui, Stanford University, Jerry Yang & Akiko Yamazaki Environment
& Energy Building, 473 Via Ortega, First Floor, Stanford, CA 94305-4121,
Baptism by Wildfire? Wildfire
Experiences and Public Support
for Wildfire Adaptation Policies
Iris Hui1, Angela Zhao1, Bruce E. Cain1,
and Anne M. Driscoll1
In recent years, wildfires have ravaged the landscape in many Western American states, especially California. But will these
horrific wildfire experiences increase public support for wildfire adaptation measures? We conducted an individual-level
survey in California in 2019. Combining survey data with geocoded information about a respondent’s proximity to wildfire
events and exposure to wildfire smoke, we assess whether respondents’ experiences increased support for several wildfire
adaptation policies. We also control for party affiliation. We find that Californians generally oppose restrictive resilience
policies and view the decision to take adaptive steps as a matter of personal choice. Republicans are generally more opposed
than Democrats to spending public funds to incentivize resilience measures, but proximity to wildfires lessens their opposition
to using public funds to encourage homeowners to upgrade their properties for increased protection from wildfires and
encourage relocation to safer places. Although exposure to wildfire smoke is extensive and harmful to health, we found that
its main impact on policy preferences was statistically insignificant.
wildfire, wildfire smoke, personal experience, climatic event, partisan bias, environmental attitudes

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