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Keywords:

  • Risk perception;
  • social amplification of risk (SAR);
  • social interactions;
  • wildfire risk information

Wildfire is a persistent and growing threat across much of the western United States. Understanding how people living in fire-prone areas perceive this threat is essential to the design of effective risk management policies. Drawing on the social amplification of risk framework, we develop a conceptual model of wildfire risk perceptions that incorporates the social processes that likely shape how individuals in fire-prone areas come to understand this risk, highlighting the role of information sources and social interactions. We classify information sources as expert or nonexpert, and group social interactions according to two dimensions: formal versus informal, and generic versus fire-specific. Using survey data from two Colorado counties, we empirically examine how information sources and social interactions relate to the perceived probability and perceived consequences of a wildfire. Our results suggest that social amplification processes play a role in shaping how individuals in this area perceive wildfire risk. A key finding is that both “vertical” (i.e., expert information sources and formal social interactions) and “horizontal” (i.e., nonexpert information and informal interactions) interactions are associated with perceived risk of experiencing a wildfire. We also find evidence of perceived “risk interdependency”—that is, homeowners’ perceptions of risk are higher when vegetation on neighboring properties is perceived to be dense. Incorporating social amplification processes into community-based wildfire education programs and evaluating these programs’ effectiveness constitutes an area for future inquiry.