Energy & Environment

California’s lower-income communities enduring more frequent wildfires: study

Firefighter Christian Mendoza manages a backfire, flames lit by firefighters to burn off vegetation, while battling the Mosquito Fire in Placer County, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

While California’s wealthy have long been considered most at risk from wildfires, new research suggests that lower-income communities experience such events most frequently.

Wildfire managers typically use government hazard maps to identify at-risk wildfire zones, but the location of such zones and fire experience may have different effects on communities, according to the study, published in PLOS Climate on Wednesday.

High-hazard communities tend to have higher incomes than low- and no-hazard communities, but populations with more frequent fires tend to have lower incomes than those with few to no such incidents, the study authors found.

“Using this metric of fire frequency identified a very different pattern of which communities are at risk,” lead author Miyuki Hino, an assistant professor in city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina, said in a statement.

“While we tend to focus on the biggest and most destructive fires, the impacts of small, frequent fires can also add up,” Hino added.

Hino partnered with Christopher Field, the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, to sift through three decades of information about where fires occurred, government hazard maps used to identify fire risk, and census and real estate data.

Ultimately, they found that residents of communities with high fire experience are much different from those who live in areas with high fire hazard.

Hino and Field observed that home values have grown more slowly in areas with high fire incidence — with property values accruing between $165 million and $630 million less each year than homes in areas with no fire experience.

Meanwhile, the authors warned, climate-fueled warming over the rest of the century could add tens of thousands of homes in these high-incidence areas.

“Lower-income communities will have fewer resources to prepare for and recover from fires,” said Hino.

Field described how the impacts of small, frequent fires can create a “death by a thousand cuts” situation.

The effects of such smaller blazes can add up over time and exacerbate existing social vulnerabilities, according to the authors.

But using fire frequency as an indicator of adaptation needs could help steer resources to low-income communities, the researchers argued.

“Identifying the most-affected areas can help direct assistance to the places that need it most,” Hino said.

Characterizing wildfire risk as “a long-term feature of California,” they stressed that risk patterns are evolving and necessitate strategies that account for diverse impacts on communities.

“The connections between experience with fires, especially multiple fires, and income and real estate point to a troubling pattern,” Field said.

“We need to take a hard look at fire management policy, to make sure it is not biased against lower income folks,” he added.

Tags California wildfires

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