Natural disasters don’t hit everyone equally. We know this is true when it comes to hurricanes, and a new study indicates a similar pattern of discrimination exists regarding the impacts of wildfires.
More than 29 million people are threatened by wildfires across the U.S., but especially in the West and Southeast, according to a new study published Friday in PLOS One. While the research found most of these people are white, people of color experience a higher degree of vulnerability to these events. Wealthier, whiter communities are more likely to suffer damage from wildfires, but they’re also better equipped to absorb these disasters by having access to insurance or simply having the financial means to manage their land to prevent fires from spiraling out of control.
“A general perception is that communities most affected by wildfires are affluent people living in rural and suburban communities near forested areas,” said lead author Ian Davies, a graduate student in the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, in a press release. “But there are actually millions of people who live in areas that have a high wildfire potential and are very poor or don’t have access to vehicles or other resources, which makes it difficult to adapt or recover from a wildfire disaster.”
The study authors, from the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy, used census data to analyze wildfire vulnerability levels across the U.S. They ranked census tracts using measures like the poverty level and unemployment rate, access to transportation, education, language barriers, and the fraction of elderly people or children. They ended up with 12.4 million people who are at risk of wildfires and not at all prepared to handle them.
The authors then coupled this data with an area’s potential to burn, breaking regions down from very low to very high wildfire potential.
While the data showed white people were more likely to experience wildfires, overall the group’s vulnerability was low. In fact, vulnerability decreased as the proportion of white and Asian or Pacific Islander people increased in a community. Meanwhile, as the fraction of Native Americans and black people increased, so did vulnerability. Native Americans, in particular, are overrepresented in wildfire-vulnerable regions. The study authors hypothesize this is due to their forced migration to reservation lands. Reservation wildfires are mostly caused by arson, and tribal governments aren’t always equipped to properly investigate and legally punish culprits, per the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“The argument that we and other scientists have made is natural disasters aren’t completely natural,” said Davies, in the press release. “They are products of both an environmental impact and the social, political, and economic context in which the impact occurs.”
Latinx communities where people lack English-speaking skills are also at risk because they may not receive emergency information in their preferred language. Undocumented immigrants, meanwhile, are less likely to trust authorities who may be there to help. Black people are also less likely to trust government authorities, which can create a barrier to safe evacuation during wildfires, and following proper fire mitigation practices.
These disparities need more attention, especially as climate change and human behavior fuel record-breaking hellish wildfire seasons. Wildfires suck for everyone involved, even the wealthy. But with money comes the ability to rebuild and start again. For people in poverty, that option doesn’t always exist.
But dispersing information in Spanish isn’t impossible. Creating policies that gives renters a leg-up when wildfires destroy their possessions isn’t impossible. Informing mobile homeowners about how to manage their land to prevent wildfires from spreading isn’t impossible.
Building a more just and equitable world is not impossible.