Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. As the saying goes, the smoke is merely a warning of the bigger threat. Fire is immediate, deadly, and requires us to take swift action. This well-known idiom sums up how we as a species perceive risk – and it’s one worth flipping on its head.

On Sunday, people in northern California breathed a sigh of relief when the Camp Fire was reportedly 100% contained. That breath, however, could have lifelong consequences to their health.

Sometimes “where there’s fire, there’s smoke” is a critical narrative. We need to change how we think about the long-term consequences presented from the dangers that still linger long after the fire’s put out. We need to bring distant risks to the forefront of our minds and act with urgency to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Smoke Waves” cover much of California now, filled with chemicals, plastics, pesticides, metals and other hazardous materials consumed by the indiscriminate fire. Many places are experiencing air quality that’s “more toxic than tobacco smoke.” Even short-term exposure to this type of pollution can be extremely harmful, especially to children with still-developing lungs. Research suggests that even exposure from a single event can alter the way their lungs grow and put them at a much greater risk of lung disease and infection later in life.

Still, people have a tough time maintaining a sense of urgency when it comes to preventative actions related to natural risks that don’t pose immediate and obvious repercussions. So how do we change this and influence people to act? For starters, we need to consider the messaging implications of how people perceive risk.

  • Risk perceptions are rooted in feelings, not facts. Studies show that people rely heavily on feelings when assessing risks. Educating the public is important, but inundating people with facts and figures may not be the most effective way to get your message across. Instead, make it personal. Find a way to connect with them emotionally, and you’re much more likely to influence their behavior.
  • When it comes to risk, perception is reality. People tend to accept natural risks but are outraged by risks imposed on them by other people or companies. Chemical spills or radiation leaks have little difficulty drumming up public outcry. “We think that nature is out of our control – it’s not malicious, it’s not profiting from us, we just have to bear with it,” says Paul Slovic, a pioneer in risk perceptions psychology. As a result, perceptions of involuntary/imposed risk can be inflated compared to actual risk whereas other risks underestimated. Behavior, however, is driven by perceived risk making education and communication around perceived risk – and thus an audience-centric approach – essential.
  • Recent incidents create windows of opportunity to motivate future actions. If a risk is abstract or intangible, people have a difficult time focusing on it. For more distant risks people cannot see or feel, timing is everything when it comes to engaging people. Utilize the “window of opportunity” created after a recent incident when people’s awareness of the risk reaches high levels. These cultural moments are the most effective time to grab attention and influence people to take the necessary actions in the future.

80 million people in the United States will see a 57 percent increase in the frequency of smoke waves over the next 30 years. It’s more important than ever that we engage the public with effective communication and messaging in order to nudge people to act now to save lives later.