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Understanding community trust in wildfire management agencies

Date: August 10, 2020

Trust is an essential element in building and maintaining successful partnerships with stakeholders and community members.


A Forest Service employee makes and address from a podium outside. In the foreground is the sleeve of a Forest Service employee with the Forest Service shield patch.
Managers hoping to build, maintain, or restore trust with communities need to work on building a reputation of both competence and demonstrating the intention to act in the best interest of the community.
Wildland fires are increasing in frequency and severity across the United States, and more homes and communities are at risk. Addressing this risk will require strong partnerships across land ownerships to identify common goals and desired outcomes for wildland fire management. Trust is an essential element in building and maintaining successful partnerships across a range of stakeholders. However, lack of trust in government agencies, particularly the Forest Service, can be a significant barrier to achieving land-management objectives through collaborative processes.

We examined how trustworthy wildfire management agencies are perceived to be in five wildfire-prone communities. In this study, trust was most often expressed in the context of agency abilities or competence (calculative trust), whereas distrust was framed in the context of intentions or the belief that the agency is not acting in the best interest of the community (relational trust).

Five factors identified as closely tied to an individual’s trust in wildfire agencies are: communication from the agency; perceived relations among different management agencies, as well as between agencies and the public; experiences with wildfire agencies, particularly during wildfire events; experience with prescribed burns; and values or preferences for management actions. Managers hoping to build, maintain, or restore trust with communities therefore may want to focus on active communication, and demonstrating competence and how actions are in the best interest of the community.

We also examined whether trust dynamics was different in different communities.  While expressions of trust and distrust did vary across communities, they generally conformed to the expectations of one community typology framework for identifying adaptive capacity in wildfire-prone communities.

Key Findings

  • Trust was most often expressed in the context of agency abilities or competence (calculative trust), whereas distrust was framed in the context of intentions or the belief that the agency is not acting in the best interest of the community (relational trust).
  • Managers hoping to build, maintain, or restore trust with communities need to work on building a reputation of both competence and demonstrating the intention to act in the best interest of the community, whether it is via daily interactions as a community member or ensuring overt consideration of local resources and concerns during a fire. Either element on its own is unlikely to be sufficient: officials focusing solely on shared values and good intentions will be unlikely to build trust without directly addressing the issue of competence.
  • Our work also suggest that whether local knowledge is used may be a proxy for assessing competence and thereby determining whether to trust or distrust an agency activity.
  • Perceived coordination across agencies can play in building or eroding trust. Demonstrating a coordinated response may go a long way in building trust, whereas signs of poor coordination appear to erode trust.
  • Participants from the formal, urbanized communities were most likely to trust wildfire agencies. While those residing in less formal, rural lifestyle communities were most likely to express distrust. These findings suggest that more formal community members may be more prone to trust institutions and, by extension, wildfire agencies. In contrast, less formal community residents are accustomed to relying on and trusting themselves or each other, rather than external, government services. This sentiment is mirrored in their relationship with wildfire agencies.

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Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
Rebecca Rasch - USDA Forest Service, Northern Region