Minority and disadvantaged communities tend to be hit much harder than affluent neighborhoods by natural disasters—this fact is well documented.
For example, New Orleans’s economically disadvantaged 9th Ward is still struggling to recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city in 2005. Worldwide, poor people are more likely to live in disaster-prone areas, like flood zones in Bangladesh and the slopes of active volcanoes in Guatemala. And climate change is expected to increase the intensity and frequency of many weather-driven disasters, meaning that risks to minority and disadvantaged communities are expected to rise.
Now a new study finds the same inequality in vulnerability to wildfires, although for different reasons.
Researchers at the University of Washington compared census data with wildfire hazard maps. They found that of more than 29 million Americans living in areas with significant wildfire risk, 12 million live in “socially vulnerable” communities for which fire could be devastating. What’s more, they found that communities of color are more vulnerable to wildfires than majority white neighborhoods are. The group most at risk is Native Americans, who are 6 times more vulnerable to wildfires than other groups.
Lead author Ian Davies said the results were a surprise. “I was expecting that people who lived in what we call the wildland-urban interface were going to be almost overwhelmingly white, and that wildfires in general were going to be a more white, affluent problem,” said Davies, a planetary data scientist.
Analyzing Risk Factors
The researchers looked at data from more than 70,000 census tracts, isolating 13 factors: poverty and per capita income, proficiency in English, housing quality, and access to transportation, among others. Then they used these factors to rate each community’s ability to adapt to hazards. They compared this rating with U.S. Forest Service wildfire hazard potential maps, which use information such as fuels, vegetation, weather, and historical fire occurrence to estimate the risk of extreme fire in a given area.
The data and maps revealed a key difference between wildfires and other disasters. In disasters like hurricanes and flooding, poor people tend to be more at risk because they’re more likely to live in low-lying, flood-prone areas. But the research, which published earlier this month in PLoS One, confirmed that affluent white people are more likely to live near the wildland areas at greatest risk.
Nonetheless, socioeconomic factors made disadvantaged groups more vulnerable to fire, the research showed. Poor people are less likely to have fire insurance and are less able to afford tree trimming or fuel removal to protect their homes, for example. Multiunit housing like apartment buildings and farm worker dormitories can be harder to escape if exits get crowded, and getting out of an evacuation zone is more challenging for people without a car. Elderly and disabled people may have a harder time leaving their homes. And people who don’t speak English may not receive or understand warnings in time to escape.
Those factors were starkly apparent in this month’s devastating California wildfires, Davies said. In the town of Paradise, at least 85 people are known to have died in the Camp Fire. “Paradise is exactly the type of community we examine in our study, and one that we identify as being in the most vulnerable category, given the wildfire potential, the sizable share of residents below the poverty line, and those who are elderly or disabled,” Davies said.
Meanwhile, although the wealthy community of Malibu experienced significant property destruction, residents had greater access to resources like insurance, transportation, and even private fire-fighting response teams. “Both are tragedies, but one community will be able to rebuild or relocate more easily than the other after the smoke has cleared,” Davies explained.
In addition to socioeconomic factors, the researchers also looked at how race and ethnicity affected fire vulnerability. They found that communities that are mostly nonwhite are 50% more vulnerable to wildfire.
Native American communities were particularly at risk, the paper explained. Not only were they more likely to be socioeconomically vulnerable, but Native Americans’ history of forced displacement onto federal reservations often placed them in areas with a high risk of wildfire, Davies noted.
The study’s findings could be used to shape wildfire response policy, Davies said. During a 2014 wildfire in eastern Washington, the paper notes, language barriers prevented evacuation warnings from reaching many Hispanic farm workers, and the only Spanish language radio station in the region never received the notification.
Translating warnings and emergency information into Spanish and disseminating important information to Hispanic communities are a necessary step to protecting these populations, the researchers argue in their paper. Authorities can also help vulnerable communities reduce their risk by subsidizing or creating cost-sharing programs for preventive measures like brush removal, Davies added.
Other Ways to Measure Resilience
The authors also found that wildfire risks are substantial in parts of the country not typically thought of as fire prone. “We often think of wildfire as being a Western issue, but as this analysis shows, there’s some real vulnerability to wildfire in other parts of the country, particularly the southeastern United States, that often don’t rise up in the public consciousness as places that have wildfire issues,” said James R. Meldrum, a U.S. Geological Survey research economist based in Fort Collins, Colo.
Meldrum, who was not involved in the research, said that the paper shines a light on the role that classic vulnerabilities like race, poverty, education, and disability play in wildfire risk. “I think that’s a very important part of the story,” he said. “It’s a reminder that it’s not just wealthy suburbanites and second-homeowners who are affected by wildfire.”
But he also cautioned not to make generalizations about the findings. Other studies have found that socioeconomic vulnerability alone is not always a good measure of a community’s resilience or ability to face risk. What some rural communities may lack in financial resources, for example, they may make up for in local knowledge. Meldrum added that knowing what types of vegetation pose wildfire hazards and how to remove them can be one way that economically disadvantaged people can reduce their vulnerability.
On the flip side, Meldrum added, “just because communities are wealthy and might be well-educated certainly does not mean that they can deal with wildfire risk on their own.” Reducing vulnerabilities to fire, he explained, will need resources at all levels.
—Ilima Loomis (@iloomis), Freelance Writer