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Title: Five social and ethical considerations for using wildfire visualizations as a communication tool
Abstract Background

Increased use of visualizations as wildfire communication tools with public and professional audiences—particularly 3D videos and virtual or augmented reality—invites discussion of their ethical use in varied social and temporal contexts. Existing studies focus on the use of such visualizations prior to fire events and commonly use hypothetical scenarios intended to motivate proactive mitigation or explore decision-making, overlooking the insights that those who have already experienced fire events can provide to improve user engagement and understanding of wildfire visualizations more broadly. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 101 residents and professionals affected by Colorado’s 2020 East Troublesome and 2021 Marshall Fires, using 3D model visualizations of fire events on tablets as a discussion tool to understand how fire behavior influenced evacuation experiences and decision-making. We provide empirically gathered insights that can inform the ethical use of wildfire visualizations by scientists, managers, and communicators working at the intersection of fire management and public safety.


Study design, interview discussions, and field observations from both case studies reveal the importance of nuanced and responsive approaches for the use of 3D visualizations, with an emphasis on the implementation of protocols that ensure the risk of harm to the intended audience is minimal. We share five considerations for use of visualizations as communication tools with public and professional audiences, expanding existing research into post-fire spaces: (1) determine whether the use of visualizations will truly benefit users; (2) connect users to visualizations by incorporating local values; (3) provide context around model uncertainty; (4) design and share visualizations in ways that meet the needs of the user; (5) be cognizant of the emotional impacts that sharing wildfire visualizations can have.


This research demonstrates the importance of study design and planning that considers the emotional and psychological well-being of users. For users that do wish to engage with visualizations, this technical note provides guidance for ensuring meaningful understandings that can generate new discussion and knowledge. We advocate for communication with visualizations that consider local context and provide opportunities for users to engage to a level that suits them, suggesting that visualizations should serve as catalysts for meaningful dialogue rather than conclusive information sources.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Publisher / Repository:
Springer Science + Business Media
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Fire Ecology
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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