Wildfires: Threat, Management, and Outlook

Oregonians share their thoughts on wildfires, wildfire management, and whether they think wildfires will become worse over the next 10 years.

A forestf fire burning trees

From May 4th through 10th, 2021, the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center conducted a statewide survey of Oregonians’ values and beliefs, including their thoughts about wildfires and efforts to address them. This online survey consisted of 918 Oregon residents ages 18+ and took approximately 15 minutes to complete. Responses were analyzed and categorized to allow for a better understanding of trends in Oregonians’ values and beliefs. The survey’s margin of error, for the full sample, ranges from ±1.9% to ±3.2% depending on how the response category percentages split for any given question. Findings will include a citation of the relevant question, which can be referenced in the annotated questionnaire and tabs at the bottom of the page.

A Serious Threat and Likely to Worsen

  • Most Oregonians (93%) see wildfires as a somewhat or very serious threat to the residents of our state broadly. On the whole, and not accounting for geographic differences, Oregonians are more likely to express concern about wildfires affecting the people of Oregon than affecting their own community (68%) or their family (58%). These concerns are heightened when compared to results from August 2019[1]. At that time, Oregonians’ concerns about fires affecting their communities and families were 16 percentage points lower, and concerns about fires affecting the people of Oregon were five points lower (Q15-17).
  • Oregonians of all age groups agree that wildfires present a serious threat to people living in Oregon (92-96%). But it is Oregonians 18-29 who express the greatest concern for their communities and families. Two-thirds of young adults in Oregon say wildfires are a serious threat to their family (66%), and nearly three-quarters say they are a serious threat to their community (73%). This is a significant increase (19 and 17 percentage points) as compared to people 65 and older, highlighting younger Oregonians’ heightened concerns about how climate change may impact their lives in the years to come (Q15).
  • Oregonians also believe the incidence of serious wildfires will continue to rise. More than half of residents say it is “very likely” that Oregon wildfires will increase in both frequency (55%) and severity (53%). Somewhat fewer people believe it is “very likely” that Oregon will experience a significant loss of forests from drought and heat (45%), but overall, most Oregonians believe all three of these outcomes are at least “somewhat likely” (80-88%) (Q21-23).
  • Beliefs that wildfires will grow in frequency and intensity are not tied to political beliefs. Despite known differences between liberals and conservatives about the existence of and causes of climate change, more than 85% of Oregonians of all social and economic ideologies (conservative, moderate, and liberal) agree that fires are likely to become more frequent and more severe.  (Q21-22).

What Oregonians Think of When it Comes to Wildfire

When they think of wildfires, many Oregonians immediately imagine destruction and devastation, both to human life, homes and development, and the environment and wildlife. They point to a combination of climate change and poor forest management as the root causes of increased and more severe fires (Q14).

“When I think of wildfires I think of destruction. I think of all the homes lost, all the animals dead, and all of the nature burned.”

Female, age 18-29, Crook County, white

“When I think of wildfires it hits home for me. I have 8 separate family members who recently lost their homes completely due to this past year’s horrific wildfires in Oregon. DEVASTATION, FEAR, AGONY, LOSS & HOPELESSNESS is what comes to mind.”

Female, age 30-44, Marion County, Hispanic or Latinx and Native American or American Indian

“Dense smoke covering a large area that lasts for days and long-term health impacts. Destruction of communities and natural resources. Lack of certainty about the future for those displaced by fire. Collateral damage to personal property and natural resources by flood, landslide, and rock fall in fire-damaged areas.”

Male, age 45-64, Multnomah County, white

“We never used to have wildfires like we do now because we had logging and wood mills, the loggers maintained our forest to keep it healthy. Now there is no logging, so now our forest is overgrown and that is why our forest fires are so bad.”

Female, age 65+, Jackson County, white

“Mismanaged land and global climate change creating conditions where fires are more likely to spread.”

Male, age 45-64, Washington County, Asian or Pacific Islander

Wildfire Management

  • Oregonians tend to place more trust in private landowners than governments for preventing wildfires through land management, but less than half of Oregonians think of any of these people are groups that are doing well. Just less than half of residents think private landowners are doing very or somewhat well at managing forests on their land (49%), compared to 33% who say the state is doing well, and 27% who say the federal government is doing well (Q18-20).
  • The most preferred fire safety and prevention tactics are those that protect homes and human life, followed by strategies that prevent uncontrollable burns. Clearing vegetation around homes and hardening them for fires are top-tier strategies supported by more than eight in ten Oregonians (81-86%). Controlled burns, thinning of weak trees, and purchasing more firefighting equipment are strategies supported by about two-thirds of Oregonians (72-76%). Logging as a strategy to reduce fires is divisive: 38% of Oregonians support it and 37% oppose it (Q27-34).
  • Nearly two-thirds of Oregonians think fires should be fought even if they are far from homes and development (72%). This figure is 7 percentage points higher than in August 2019, suggesting that recent devastating wildfires have resulted in an increased urgency to fight fires. Oregonians are primarily concerned about the unpredictable nature of fires once they spread, which they see as a threat to human life and homes. They also see the smoke and emissions from large fires as a threat to human health, regardless of whether it is close to development. Concerns about wildlife are also common. Those who think fires far from development should be allowed to burn point to fires’ role in the environmental process and see it as a natural way to clear brush and fuel from the land (Q24).

“Last year is proof positive that smaller fires burning in remote areas can quickly get out of hand if not put out right away.”

Male, age 45-64, Deschutes County, white

“Fires can spread rapidly, even if they start in remote areas. (2) Smoke from wildfires travels long distances and creates significant health risks as well as affecting quality of life. (3) The “let it burn” philosophy was developed in a wetter and cooler climate phase when it posed less of a risk.”

Female, age 65+, Multnomah County, white

“Some large fires are incredibly difficult to fight and are dangerous for firefighters. Tough call, though.”

Female, age 30-44, Washington County, refused

“I strongly believe if it’s caused by a human then put the fire out. If it’s caused by nature, let it burn.”

Female, age 30-44, Tillamook County, white

“It’s typically best to let nature take its course. It’s also beneficial in that it helps to thin out the forests so future fires can be prevented.”

Female, age 30-44, Washington County, Hispanic or Latinx

Demographic Trends

Identifying what unites us, understanding what divides us.

  • Although most Oregonians support fighting fires, even when they are started by natural causes and aren’t near development, some people believe they should be allowed to burn as part of a natural process. Urban dwellers are more likely to take the “let it burn” approach (35%), whereas fewer Oregonians in the Willamette Valley (22%) or the rest of the state (23%) agree. This may be due to the speed with which fires can change direction and begin to demolish entire towns in more rural areas (Q24).
  • Many forest management practices are supported statewide but logging in fire prone areas presents a larger urban-rural division. A plurality of urbanites (42%) oppose logging to reduce fire risk but many of these residents remain unsure about the practice (26%). Meanwhile, just about half of rural or suburban-to-rural residents support the practice (47-50%). An equal number of these rural or mostly rural residents are unsure (22-26%), indicating Oregonians may be hungry for more information about the benefits and detriments of logging as a management tool (Q30).

This research was completed as a community service by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, an independent and non-partisan organization. OVBC is an Oregon charitable nonprofit corporation (www.oregonvbc.org).

For More Information:

[1] Survey conducted August 14-21, 2019; DHM Research; n=552.

Analysis and Reporting by: Ari Wubbold