North Carolina Wildfire Risks and Public Trust (2020-2021)


Although trust in individual scientists remains relatively high, public trust in many institutions has eroded, a situation that threatens public engagement with information about science and health. At the same time, human development of wilderness areas has generated important frontiers in the wildland-urban interface – areas in which human-built structures intermingle with undeveloped wildland, forest or vegetative fuels. Such areas have relatively greater risk of wildfires and health concerns related to those fires than other areas, which means that public education efforts could be vital to future public health and well-being.

North Carolina has a greater number of acres designated as wildland-urban interface than any other state. Understanding how residents of counties that are high in these areas make decisions about which sources to trust regarding wildfire information could offer a foundation for crucial future public engagement efforts.

Project Description

This project team will investigate how people living in such areas in North Carolina navigate and make decisions about information sources. The team will explore trust as a concept describing information source perceptions; develop and implement an interview protocol; and create a prototype of an information tool for public engagement around wildfire risk in these areas.

First, the team will develop a shared understanding of resident trust perceptions as a force to measure and consider. Consulting experts from social science, law, public policy, environmental sciences, medicine and community college instruction, the team will build consensus for conceptual understanding and for optimal ways to ask questions of residents in high wildland-urban interface areas.

Next, the team will turn to interview planning and implementation, collaborating with partners in as many as three counties in North Carolina that are relatively high in these interfaces – likely Rockingham, Vance, Orange or Buncombe County. The team will conduct interviews with residents, asking about perceptions of trust in scientific information sources, preferences for wildfire and environmental health information content and formats, perceptions of information source descriptions and information needs regarding wildfires and environmental health.

Following the interview process, team members will develop a final prototype information tool to offer communities. The team will share the tool with community-level coordinators for feedback and potential distribution on a local basis.

Anticipated Outputs

Report on key interview insights; conference presentation; journal manuscript; information tool prototype


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Fall 2020: Conduct literature review on public understanding of air pollution and informal science education; design interview-based measurement protocol to elicit perceptions of trust in environmental health information sources; finalize data collection methods and recruitment strategies; determine locations for interviews
  • Spring 2021: Conduct interviews; complete data collection and analysis; write final report, conference presentation and manuscript; develop information tool prototype; report back to on-site community coordinators for information sharing

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Image: Whipping Creek wildfire, by U.S. Forest Service/U.S. Department of Agriculture, licensed under CC BY 2.0


Team Leaders

  • Brian Southwell, Social Science Research Institute
  • Shane Stansbury, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Angela Hessenius, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Joanna Parkman, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Rebecca Sauer, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Simon Brown, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Yunfei Li
  • Audrey Magnuson, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Callie Turner, Psychology (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Mary Clare Hano, Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Andrew Olson, School of Medicine-Duke Clinical Research Institute

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Alana Baker, Rockingham Community College
  • Deanna Corin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Montana Eck, University of North Carolina at Chapel HIll