Discourses About Wildfire in New Jersey and New South Wales

This page describes the research I have done for my PhD dissertation from the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. Here I attempt to summarize my work in a way that the general public can understand. If you would like to delve into the details, you may download the full writeups in PDF format below. I am always eager to hear feedback, which can be sent to me at .

Download the full writeup (to be broken down and published in the appropriate academic journals):

Final Version -- Full Text (pdf) (posted 28 October 07)

Why and How I'm Doing This Research

What do people in fire-prone areas think about the risks from wildfires, and about the things that homeowners or the government could do to manage that risk?

This research attempts to answer that question through the use of "Q method" and a mail survey in two case study areas: the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, USA, and the outer suburbs of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. This research project is also aimed at introducing a cultural perspective on environmental issues, and in particular testing Grid-Group Cultural Theory.

Why ask what people think about fires?

In a democratic society, environmental and hazard-mitigation policies should be based on what the public wants. There is no one policy that can please everybody, but efforts should be made to balance the interests of everyone affected. Also, fire policy will be unsuccessful if the public does not agree with it and comply. After all, fires do not respect property boundaries, so what your neighbors do affects you. Unfortunately, we do not have a good picture of what people think about fire, and so too often management relies on assumptions and stereotypes.

New Jersey study area

New South Wales study area

Why New Jersey and New South Wales?

This research has two study areas: the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and the outer suburbs of Sydney, New South Wales. (The maps to the left are adapted from Google Maps -- click on them for larger versions.) The New Jersey study area encompasses all towns in or adjacent to the Pinelands Biosphere Reserve. The New South Wales study area encompasses the area from Wollongong to Wyong, and from the Pacific Ocean to the Blue Mountains, excluding the highly urbanized area between Bondi and Paramatta.

Australia and the United States have had very different histories of dealing with fire. For a long time the USA believed that fires were bad, and worked to put them all out. On the other hand, Australia was committed to using controlled burning as often and as widely as possible. Starting around the 1970s, the consensus in each country began to break down. Americans realized that stopping all fires was impossible, and that some environments need occasional fires to remain healthy. Australia realized that extensive controlled burning was not feasible, and some plants may go extinct if they are burned too frequently. In both countries, then, there is substantial debate at the present time about how fire should be handled.

New Jersey and the Sydney region in New South Wales both have large, and growing, areas of "Urban-Wildland Interface," or UWI. The UWI is formed when residential settlement abuts areas of "wild" or "bush" land. It differs from traditional rural settlement because UWI residents are typically not farming, logging, or otherwise directly using the land. The mixture of forests and houses makes the UWI a prime location for high fire danger.

What is Q method? What is a discourse?

Q method is a survey technique in which people sort a set of statements about an issue according to how much they agree with them. Q method uses the mathematical technique of factor analysis to cluster people who sort the statements similarly.

A "discourse" is a shared way of thinking or speaking about an issue --- in essence, a viewpoint. Q method is used to reveal the shared discourses that lead groups of people to sort the statements differently.

I chose 56 statements, based on background interviews with knowledgeable people and reading the academic literature, that represented the range of opinions that people seemed to have about wildfires in my two case study areas. Each person was asked to sort two versions of the set of statements -- a "normative" version where they were phrased as "should" statements, and a "descriptive" version where they were phrased as "is" statements. Twenty-five people in New Jersey and 28 people in New South Wales completed Q sorts.

How did you do the survey?

The surveys were done according to Don Dillman's "Tailored Design Method." Up to four mailings were sent to each person over the course of a month and a half -- an introductory letter introducing the project, an initial survey mailing, a reminder postcard, and a replacement survey. A token financial incentive (US$2 or AU$5) was included with the initial survey to thank people for taking the time to fill out the survey.

The New South Wales survey was sent out to 398 people in the Riverstone, Menai, and Blue Mountains electoral districts. Their names were randomly selected either from the electoral rolls (last printed in 2003) or the most recent phone book (which does not include unlisted numbers). After subtracting bad addresses, there was a total response rate of 56.2%.

The New Jersey survey was sent out to 400 people, selected randomly from the property tax records from Bass River Township, Egg Harbor City, Lakehurst, and Waterford Township. After subtracting bad addresses, there was a total response rate of 47.2%.


I would like to thank all of the organizations and individuals who participated in this research.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0526381. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.