Geography of Vulnerability: Which Communities Are Most Affected by Wildfire?

Wildfires are generally seen as a type of disaster that should not discriminate based on race, sex, or socio-economic class. However, this is not the case. Communities that live close to areas where forest and brush fires occur, at least in the United States, have been recently demonstrated to be predominately African American, Hispanic, or Native American. The question that arises is why are such communities more vulnerable?

In a recent study, investigators used the Large Fire Simulator that incorporated a 270 meter resolution raster product to simulate vulnerability to wildfires based on vegetation, weather, historical occurrence of wildfires and resistance of an area to wildfires. Areas vulnerable to wildfires are effectively limited in their adaptive capacity to absorb, mitigate and recover from wildfires, which allows these areas to be rated based on a vulnerability score that can then be compared to where different socio-economic classes and races live in the United States based on the US Census. Using a quantile regression, it was shown that about 29 million Americans live in areas vulnerable to wildfires. Of those 29 million, ethnic communities other than White or Asian Americans were 50% more likely to experience a wildfire. This was a surprising result given that over 76% of census tracts, which were used to apply the analysis, were composed of primarily White Americans. How does one explain this result? One issue is that areas that are more prone to wildfires are areas that tend to have lower property values, which likely means they are occupied by communities with lower socio-economic levels that tend to be more minority communities. These communities generally have less resources to fight wildfires. Another issue is that Native Americans are clearly associated with wildfire vulnerability. This could be explain by the fact that many of them live in reservations that have historically been vulnerable to wildfires due to their remote location. Overall, there is a deficit in these vulnerable communities to adapt to better prepare for wildfires, as these communities also have fewer financial and other resources to fight or limit wildfires.[1]


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A) Average WHP scores for census tracts in the continental U.S. (n = 71,901). The relative magnitude shifts when researchers considerered the social and economic characteristics of census tracts in their vulnerability to wildfire (B). Only those census tracts with a moderate to very high WHP score are represented in (n = 6,304). In 2A, the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs and eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain communities are labeled as 1 and 2, respectively.

A) Average WHP scores for census tracts in the continental U.S. (n = 71,901). The relative magnitude shifts when researchers considerered the social and economic characteristics of census tracts in their vulnerability to wildfire (B). Only those census tracts with a moderate to very high WHP score are represented in (n = 6,304). In 2A, the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs and eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain communities are labeled as 1 and 2, respectively.

Interestingly, other small-scale studies have suggested similar results previously. Wyman et al. (2012) showed that in rural Florida, African Americans are typically more vulnerable to wildfires. The main reason seems to be again a lack of resources to prepare and limit the effects of wildfires in communities that are predominately African American.[2] Other studies in the southern part of the United States have shown white Americans have generally been more aware or have a greater perception of potential wildfire threats, although interestingly they had shown in the past being less amenable to workshops, government interventions and technical assistance than non-whites. It is possible that White American communities depended more on local or their own resources to prevent or limit wildfires, which could also reflect potential resources advantages that White American communities had.[3] Similar results in the southern United States also show that the mean distance between wildfire risk areas and socio-economic levels have a strong correlation, where communities that are closer to wildfire risk tended to be generally poorer and less prepared communities. These communities were also shown to have relatively few or less prepared mitigation programs for wildfires.[4]

Wildfires are a growing risk, as recently demonstrated in California. At times, when celebrities and affluent Americans are affected by wildfires that are particularly destructive, these events make headlines, but the reality is poorer and ethnic minority communities are more vulnerable to wildfires. This seems to be likely due to the fact their communities are less prepared and the land they live on or near is generally more vulnerable to wildfires due to weather or vegetation conditions. Being aware of the fact that certain communities might be more vulnerable may require state and government fire prevention intervention programs to target specific communities and fire mitigation strategies may need to consider how more vulnerable communities could better prepare, particularly in light of a changing climate that will likely see a greater threat from wildfires.

References

[1]     For more on wildfire vulnerability and its comparison to Census data, see:  Davies, Ian P., Ryan D. Haugo, James C. Robertson, and Phillip S. Levin. 2018. “The Unequal Vulnerability of Communities of Color to Wildfire.” Edited by Julia A. Jones. PLOS ONE13 (11): e0205825. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205825.

[2]     For more on African American vulnerability to wildfires in Florida, see: Wyman, Miriam, Sparkle Malone, Taylor Stein, and Cassandra Johnson. 2012. “Race and Wildfire Risk Perceptions among Rural Forestland Owners in North-Central Florida.” Society & Natural Resources25 (12): 1293–1307. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2012.681752.

[3]     For more on how different racial communities perceive and adapt to wildfire threats in the southern United States, see:  Jarrett, Adam,  Jianbang Gan, Cassandra Johnson, Ian A. Munn. 2009. Landowner awareness and adoption of wildfire programs in the southern United States. Journal of Forestry 107(3): 113-118. https://doi.org/10.1093/jof/107.3.113

[4]     For more on socio-economic indicators of vulnerability to wildfires in the southern United States, see:  Gaither, Cassandra Johnson, Neelam C. Poudyal, Scott Goodrick, J.M. Bowker, Sparkle Malone, and Jianbang Gan. 2011. “Wildland Fire Risk and Social Vulnerability in the Southeastern United States: An Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis Approach.” Forest Policy and Economics13 (1): 24–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2010.07.009.

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