NAU forestry professor receives grant to investigate human decision-making to better inform forest fire evacuation

Catherine edgeley, Assistant Professor at Northern Arizona University Forestry school received a $ 400,000 grant under the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Early Career Innovators Program to study how people perceive wildfires and make decisions about evacuation.

The grant, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will allow Edgeley to work with scientists at NCAR and use the NCAR model visualizations of recent fire events to explore how environmental cues related to weather conditions and fire behavior. fire influence household decision making during forest fire evacuation.

“Previous research on household evacuation during a wildfire indicates that many residents of fire-prone areas” will wait and see how a fire unfolds before deciding what to do rather than proactively committing to evacuate , shelter in place or stay to defend their property, ”said Edgeley. “This can lead to dangerous or uninformed decision making when the window of opportunity for preparation closes. We hope to develop a clearer understanding of what specifically motivates people to take a course of action so that we can frame emergency communication during fires in a more meaningful way. “

NCAR’s Early Career Innovator Program was created to solve complex research problems by forging partnerships between NCAR scientists and early career faculty at other universities or colleges. New cohorts for the program are selected every two years. Social science professors, along with a graduate student of their choice, are paired with NCAR atmospheric scientists to develop interdisciplinary convergence research at NCAR’s Mesa Lab in Boulder, Colorado. The theme for the 2021-2023 cohort of the program this year is “Actionable Earth System Science”.

Edgeley’s project will begin by modeling recent forest fires, focusing on how environmental changes such as the speed of a fire spread, wind speed, and decreased air quality relate to each other. take place for the duration of the fire. These models will then be transformed into interactive visualizations.

The visualizations serve as a memory recall tool and will be used to enhance the recall of traumatic events or highly stressful wildfires, which will help researchers identify the specific environmental changes that are driving people’s decisions to evacuate.

Forest fire from downtown view“We hope to understand how decisions associated with sudden local environmental change vary both between fires and across a gradient of households affected differently by the same fire event,” said Edgeley.

She said earlier studies had indicated that environmental cues such as fire behavior had an influence, but it is not clear whether there are key thresholds that become common ‘tipping points’ that households put into place. in practice their planned behaviors.

“By understanding how environmental contexts can motivate proactive behaviors during wildfires, we can help improve public safety and the community’s adaptation to fire risk,” said Edgeley. “This project can inform more suitable evacuation education programs and improve emergency communication during forest fires by focusing on specific components of fire behavior and weather changes.”

Once these key environmental cues and the types of behaviors they might evoke in people are identified, researchers can better inform residents and their evacuation decision-making by including these specific details in public communication.

“Our NAU-NCAR partnership will allow us to develop a new approach to understanding human behavior during fires,” said Edgeley. “Atmospheric models are rarely shared with the public, and we hope that the integration of these results with the social sciences will uncover new information about why people react in certain ways to approaching wildfires. . “

Learn more about the National Center for Atmospheric Research

Created in 1960, the National Center for Atmospheric Research was the first federally funded research and development center established to understand the behavior of the atmosphere and related Earth and geospatial systems. It provides the academic community, particularly those in atmospheric and earth system sciences, with world-class facilities and services for working that go beyond what an individual institution can offer. This includes access to supercomputers, research planes, sophisticated computer models and vast data sets. NCAR is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a non-profit consortium of more than 115 colleges and universities.

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Jacklyn Walling | AUA Communications

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