Interface – the area where two things meet; a point of interaction or communication
 
PULLMAN – Thousands of wildfires cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year — and cause conflict between fire managers and residents in the wildland urban interface (WUI), that area where residential neighborhoods bump up against public lands. Doctoral student Travis Paveglio wants fire management to work better in the WUI and sees sociology and communication as tools useful to defuse the conflict.
 
Toward that goal, he helped form a different kind of interface — an area where the ongoing wildfire sociology research of professor Matt Carroll overlaps studies on communication, stakeholder rights and property by assistant professor Todd Norton.
 
Core of conflict
A communication and property study by Norton and Paveglio looked at two wildfires from 2006 — the Day and Columbia Complex fires.
 
“We analyzed public discourse in the form of media reporting and stakeholder articulations of their concerns,” Norton said.
 
Among the findings:
• Property is a key site of conflict or cohesion among stakeholders (homeowners, firefighters, fire managers).
 
“People barely recognized the role of fire except relative to property,” Norton said. “This is unfortunate because fire is a crucial process in the (health and management of the) ecosystem and its role transcends property.”
 
Public lands were seen as less important because they were considered “non-property.”
Though this was “disturbing,” Norton said it might be used by firefighting agencies and fire managers. If they could educate stakeholders that public lands indeed are property, perhaps the value of these lands would increase in the public eye.
 
Tangled communication
• Firefighters often are caught in the middle of the inferno, damned if they don’t (protect homes and other private property) and damned if they do (evacuate owners who then could not protect their own property, for example).
 
“On the other hand, property owners reported positive comments when the firefighters had attended well to their property,” Norton said.
 
Results from this and other studies indicate more consideration is needed regarding the use of public resources, including taxpayer funds, to protect private property in the WUI.
 
• The media are failing to provide a broader exploration of wildfire issues beyond the typical  focus on property (tactics, progress, etc.) Topics the researchers said the media should address include discussion of housing development patterns; taxpayer costs and the legitimacy of higher taxes on homes in the WUI; and a national wildfire insurance plan, similar to mandatory federal flood insurance.
 
Collaborative solutions
Paveglio is pursuing his Ph.D. with Carroll in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences. He completed his master’s degree at WSU in the School of Communication in 2007, working with Norton. His work with both professors resulted in three papers published or about to be published.
 
Paveglio and Carroll have three other papers under review for publication concerning the WUI. Two explore community conflict and cohesion five years after wildfires in Arizona and one outlines the theoretical basis for understanding differences in WUI communities.
In addition, Paveglio has spent parts of the last two summers, and will spend part of summer 2009, in western communities studying their plans for alternatives to evacuation in the event of wildfires.
 
“All of this relates to our recent efforts to better understand the social differences in the WUI,” Paveglio said. “We have to understand the character of a place and its people so that managers can work with them to come up with collective local solutions.”
 
Paveglio favors collective solutions in academia, as well.
 
“The topics I have been interested in have never really fit in any one department,” he said. “We need more collaborations to solve questions that are complex and multifaceted. I hope WSU can build more formal bridges for students who are interested in combining interdisciplinary research.”