Loss Reduction During Wildfires and Other Disasters: Implications of Individuals and Organizations, Public and Private

headshot of Devin Stein

Loss Reduction During Wildfires and Other Disasters: Implications of Individuals and Organizations

This year’s wildfires in the western United States have been raging so severely that even East Coast residents felt the effects on air quality—compelling evidence for the timeliness of Devin Stein’s ‘22 Ph.D. research. Ever since Stein, a doctoral candidate at the Whitman School and fellow of the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society (IES) witnessed his first fires in the canyon behind Utah State University, where he completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees, the problem has only intensified.

“Fires have grown significantly in the past 20 years,” Stein says. “Especially in the past decade, you see record-breaking fires almost every year.”

Applying his background in environmental studies, economics and environmental policy, Stein is studying the nexus of the various types of organizations engaged in battling the blazes. He has linked data supplied by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on the number and location of homes destroyed by wildfires from 2013 through 2019 to the fire suppression work of more than 2,000 surrounding entities, both public—such as fire departments, resource conservation districts or town councils—and private—such as logging companies or insurance firms. 

“I was looking at whether communities with such organizations tend to do better in fire events, whether you see any reductions in property loss,” Stein says. 

His results show that all types of organizations play important roles in preventing property destruction. While public organizations often have the most direct impact, private companies and nonprofits could increase their efficacy, for example, by providing specialized equipment or education.

These solutions, Stein says, are rarely clear-cut. Involvement from as many different people as possible, however, is key. “I think that ultimately all my research comes down to: We need to get more people into the room and start talking about problems,” he says. “One of the bigger challenges is just trying to convince people that they can actually make a difference.”

Through his work, Stein hopes to challenge not just individuals but also organizations to think beyond silos of “public versus private” or “that’s not my job.” 

For example, major insurance corporation AIG has invested in wildfire prevention—providing a public service. 

Whether applied to wildfires or similarly complicated issues such as flooding, homelessness or public education, “we need a broader perspective of who is involved in trying to address such complex problems.”