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Minorities Are Most Vulnerable When Wildfires Strike in U.S., Study Finds

Having grown up in San Diego, Ian Davies has strong memories of the 2003 Cedar Fire, which at the time was California’s largest-ever wildfire.

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Kendra Pierre-Louis
, New York Times

Having grown up in San Diego, Ian Davies has strong memories of the 2003 Cedar Fire, which at the time was California’s largest-ever wildfire.

Now, as a graduate student at the University of Washington, Davies has published a new study on wildfires, and on who is most at risk. “My sort of anecdotal memory of the wildfires is that the people who were most affected were, you know, white folks,” he said. “So what we wanted to do was examine areas where wildfires are likely to occur in the U.S. and actually dig deep and see what types of communities are most vulnerable.”

The study, which appears in the journal PLoS One this month, suggests that people of color, especially Native Americans, face more risk from wildfires than whites. It is another example of how the kinds of disasters exacerbated by climate change often hit minorities and the poor the hardest.

Floods, hurricanes and fires may be natural phenomena, Davies said, “but what makes them dangerous, what turns them into the disaster, is the social and political factors.”

Davies, working with researchers at the Nature Conservancy, a conservation nonprofit, began by identifying which regions in the United States were most at risk for severe wildfires. Their results included the Western United States, but also parts of the Southeast where fires will become more common under climate change.

They found that 29 million people in the United States live in high-risk locations. Most of them are white and not poor. But the researchers then used census data to identify 12 million people with characteristics that made them especially vulnerable to the effects of wildfires. Davies called those socioeconomic circumstances “adaptive capacity.”

“They are things that would make someone more vulnerable and less able to adapt to a wildfire if it occurred,” he said.

The people with the greatest vulnerability were disproportionately people of color. But it was not because these people were living in places that were more likely to burn in a fire.

Instead, the factors included things like access to a car — critical for evacuations — and whether the people spoke English fluently. In 2017, as three fires raged across California’s Napa County, most emergency messages were delivered in English even though 30 percent of Napa’s population identifies as Hispanic.

“We’re not saying that people who are not poor aren’t affected by wildfires,” Davies said. “What we’re saying is, if you have the characteristics of a disadvantaged community, you’re much more likely to take longer to recover.

Bob Bolin, a professor of environmental social science at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study, cautioned that it was not an empirical study of actual communities. Rather, “the article lays out a terrain of risk,” he said in an email.

“What is interesting about wildfires is that the wealthy often put themselves in harm’s way — the second home in the woods phenomenon,” Bolin wrote. “The difference between the wealthy and the poor is the wealthy can afford losses, they have insurance, health insurance, secure jobs (typically somewhere else) and the poor don’t.”

Davies found that Native Americans living on federal reservations were six times more likely to live in both the most vulnerable and the most fire-prone areas.

Part of the reason is the historical legacy of the reservations, which have trapped many Native Americans in poverty. And the reservations are often located on grasslands or abutting forests that have a high potential for wildfires. But century-old rules that were designed to reduce forest fires through fire suppression, and that made it illegal to set fires on public forest lands, essentially banned many tribes from using controlled burns to reduce wildfire risk. (In recent years, federal agencies have started to work with some tribes to conduct prescribed burns.)

Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, said the research could be useful in preparing for future disasters. “Results of this study can help inform planning and outreach efforts to enhance the resilience of fire-prone communities, particularly for communities of color that are often overlooked when these disasters happen,” she said in an email.

Wildfires will only get worse as the planet warms, scientists say. The 2003 Cedar Fire is now only the third-largest in California’s history. This summer’s Mendocino Complex Fire took the top spot.

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