DISASTERSExploring the Role of Place Attachment Following California Wildfires

Published 29 June 2022

Homeowners across the United States are not only experiencing higher mortgage rates and property costs, they’re also at risk of damage from an increasing number of disasters linked to natural hazards, including wildfires. 

Homeowners across the United States are not only experiencing higher mortgage rates and property costs, they’re also at risk of damage from an increasing number of disasters linked to natural hazards, including wildfires.  

Last year, more than a million people, including 600,000 Californians, were at least temporarily displaced from their homes by wildfires — more than twice as many as in 2019. Those numbers are expected to continue to grow over the next 30 years as fires become more intense and frequent due to climate change.

While the risks are clear, many homeowners continue to live in fire-vulnerable areas, or even rebuild in the same location after being displaced, a decision-making process that has not been well investigated, according to Alex Greer.

Greer, an associate professor at SUNY-Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, is leading a new collaborative study that will rely on insight from recent California wildfire victims to better understand the role of place attachment in residential adjustments following disaster events.

The two-year study launched this month and is supported by $299,825 from the National Science Foundation.

“After a major disaster, affected homeowners must make a difficult decision: Do they rebuild their home as it was before the disaster, rebuild but in a way that better protects them from future disasters, or relocate to a new home elsewhere? These are complicated decisions that are influenced by many factors. One underlying factor that affects the others is place attachment, or the emotional and functional ties that people have to the place where they live.”

“Our study is focused on understanding how place attachment influences the decisions people make after disasters, specifically about where they live and whether they invest in measures that will reduce their risk in the future.”

Adjusting to Disaster
The study will be based in Butte, Sonoma and Lake County, all of which have been affected by recent, major wildfires. Since 2015, the three Northern California counties have seen 32,000 buildings destroyed by wildfires, including nearly 5,000 manufactured homes and 17,890 single and multifamily residences. Each community is in different phases of recovery, with rebuilding proceeding most rapidly in Sonoma.

As a first step, the researchers are working with community partners to recruit and survey homeowners who have been impacted by the wildfires. The survey asks them about their fire experience, steps of recovery and where they are in the residential adjustment process.

The survey will be followed by a photovoice exercise, a visual research methodology that was developed and is mostly used by health promotion researchers. Photovoice participants will be trained and then asked to take and select photos where placement attachment exists. After the exercise, they will discuss their experiences and the significance of the photos selected during individual interviews.

“Our hope is that this novel application of photovoice, in combination with survey results, will test the method’s utility for use in disaster research and provide a template for future studies,” Greer said.

The Broader Impact
Data from the study will be disseminated and shared through local town hall exhibitions, a project website and through publications, presentations and webinars. The researchers will also develop a policymaker toolkit aimed at supporting local and state policymakers.

“We believe our innovative approach will help local governments and practitioners develop programs that better support households that are affected by disasters and inform community planning for hazards associated with climate change,” Greer said. “Beyond wildfires, this study will make valuable contributions to our larger understanding of post-fire recovery, allowing us to draw parallels between wildfire and more commonly studied hazards, including floods and hurricanes.”