Recent research finds that some communities benefit more from wildfire management than others, and public agencies respond more vigilantly to hazards that affect whiter, higher-income, and more highly educated communities.
The past several years have produced an unprecedented series of devastating wildfire events in the western United States. California has been especially hard hit, with 15 of the 20 most destructive wildfire events in state history having occurred in just the past six years. In addition to destroying thousands of homes, many of these wildfire events have engulfed the western United States in wildfire smoke.
Emerging news stories have indicated that some of the consequences of wildfire events may not be felt equally across socioeconomic groups. For example, a recent New York Times article reports that low-income and minority communities in California’s Central Valley are harder hit by wildfire smoke than coastal communities, and these underserved communities are less able to protect themselves. Much of the reporting following the Camp Fire noted that Paradise, California, which was destroyed in the fire, comprised a disproportionately vulnerable population.
Questions regarding how the impacts of wildfires are distributed across groups reflect broader concerns over environmental justice. For example, a large body of research has found that pollution is higher near minority communities and that hazardous waste sites are more likely to be located nearby. Studies also have found that exposure to flood risk can differ across groups.
A feature that distinguishes wildfire from other natural hazards, however, is the role that management plays in both affecting the risk and influencing the course of events as they occur. Fuels management projects, such as prescribed fire and forest thinning, are tools that land managers can use to reduce the potential for high-intensity, and potentially hazardous, fires. After a fire begins, the response by land management agencies and firefighters influences which areas burn. Because over 70 percent of wildfires occur on federal lands, federal land management agencies play a major role in wildfire management, though state agencies also contribute, especially in wildfire suppression.
In two new working papers, my coauthors and I explore how the benefits of wildfire management are distributed unevenly across groups. In one of the working papers, we find that wildfire suppression efforts on behalf of homes differ according to property values. To provide evidence for how wildfire effort was allocated, we compare wildfire perimeters to the distribution of houses on the landscape. Controlling for characteristics of predicted fire spread based on a US Forest Service fire spread model, we find that fires are more likely to stop burning as they approach areas with higher-value homes—even when those areas contain fewer houses. We take this result as evidence that wildfire management is allocated disproportionately across the landscape, and areas with higher-value homes benefit disproportionately from fire suppression efforts.
In another new working paper, my coauthors and I investigate differences in the success that various communities have in obtaining fuels management treatments after fires occur nearby. In a previous paper, we found that public land management agencies are more likely to place fuels management projects near communities that have experienced a recent wildfire. We find in our new paper that, after a recent fire, communities that are high-income, more highly educated, and disproportionately white receive a greater boost in their access to fuels treatments. Our results suggest that well-off communities are more successful in lobbying for risk-reducing fire management activities.
Together, these two new papers suggest that wildfire management activities can benefit communities unequally, and that differences in wildfire management may be one factor that affects discrepancies across groups. Neither of these papers suggests any ill intent or explicit bias on the part of land managers or firefighters: Higher-income areas may have greater political sway and ability to request projects. Greater political repercussions may result from high-damage fires in these areas, which may lead fire management to implicitly favor certain communities. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that, on top of other factors that expose vulnerable populations to greater risk from natural disasters, inequitable distribution of benefits from fire management may exacerbate existing disparities.