Understanding Key Informant Experiences and Perceptions of the 2016 Drought and Wildfires in Western North Carolina

Authors: Lauren Andersen*, Appalachian State University, Laura Thompson, Appalachian State University, Kara Dempsey, Appalachian State University, Elizabeth Shay, Appalachian State University, Margaret Sugg, Appalachian State University, Abie Bonevac, Appalachian State University
Topics: Hazards and Vulnerability, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Qualitative Research
Keywords: Drought, Wildfire, Water Management, Climate Experiences and Perceptions, Interviewing, Western North Carolina
Session Type: Poster
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Lincoln 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: Download


In 2016, an exceptional drought and subsequent wildfires devastated the southeastern United States. Western North Carolina (WNC), a growing region dependent on revenue from tourism and agriculture, was particularly impacted by the events. The Southeast is not typically considered water-vulnerable, and few studies have explored drought and wildfire in WNC. However, the region is projected to experience elevated water vulnerability due to rapid population growth and increased climatic variability. The recent events highlight the need for better understanding of water-related experiences and perceptions to inform proactive policies for risk mitigation in WNC. To evaluate stakeholder experiences and perceptions relating to the events in 2016, the authors conducted phone interviews with key informants from a variety of sectors in two counties (Buncombe and Watauga), then subjected their responses to content analysis. Informants frequently discussed themes relating to Natural Resources and Environment, with responses revealing concerns about the health effects of smoke exposure, as well as water quantity. Other common topics of discussion for informants include water management, public awareness, and disaster severity. The prevalence of other themes varied by county, demonstrating the importance of local context. Surprisingly, informants rarely discussed risk in the context of increasing population and development, suggesting that current policies may inadequately address future risks. Stakeholders across all sectors placed substantial emphasis on information dissemination both within agencies and to the public. With a better understanding of key informant experiences and perceptions, policymakers will be better equipped to address policy shortcomings, as well as prepare for future hazards.

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