Wildfire recovery is possible — for some Westerners

Resilience depends on economics and history as much as fuel.

 

As of this writing, 79 people have died and several hundred are still missing from northern California’s deadly Camp Fire. Yet even as Californians work to rebuild their lives, Westerners know the next devastating conflagration is only a matter of time.

Increasing numbers of Westerners live in fire-prone areas. But as Westerners think about how to prepare for future fires, new research suggests that the answer isn’t as simple as avoiding flammable homesites. While it’s tempting to think of wildfire risk in terms of geography — fuel loads, lightning frequency, forest types — the reality is more complex. Writing in the academic journal PLOS One, researchers explained that for people living in wildfire-prone areas, the real causes of devastation come from socioeconomic and historical, not landscape, factors.

Vulnerable populations such as the elderly face heightened barriers to recovery when fire devastation hits. Paradise, California, resident Cathy Fallon reacts as she stands near the charred remains of her home.
John Locher/AP Images

According to the research, most Americans living in areas at the highest risk from wildfires are affluent, sometimes owning second homes in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. But these aren’t necessarily the most wildfire vulnerable Americans.

Roughly 40 percent of Americans living in wildfire-prone areas, or about 12 million people, lack the resources to prepare for or recover from fire. In general, the study found that the elderly, disabled and non-English-speaking are more likely to be devastated by a fire.

One reason is that cheaper housing, such as mobile homes or apartments, is often less durable during fires, and poorer Americans are less likely to have reliable transportation during an emergency. After a burn, renters don’t qualify for as much federal assistance as property owners. As well, the researchers point out that in the aftermath of the 2017’s Sonoma County fires in California, rental prices shot up, hurting lower income residents.

In contrast, wealthy homeowners are more likely to have the funds to prepare for fires, such as by paying for flammable plant growth to be thinned near homes, and have access to educational materials about wildfire preparedness. They also are more likely to have the benefits of homeownership in a fire’s aftermath that renters lack, such as fire insurance. In other words, lower income residents of less-fire-prone areas may still be more fire vulnerable than wealthy residents of more-fire-prone areas.

Researchers found that tribal communities are by far the West's most fire-vulnerable.
Ian Davies

Vulnerability is a complex mix of economics, place-based history, and culture. For lower-income residents of fire-prone areas, access to transportation, or even just information, can be limited. “If you don’t have a cell phone and everybody’s getting evacuation orders by cellphone or social media … you end up being part of the disaster,” said Phillip Levin, a conservation scientist at the University of Washington and study coauthor. Additionally, during California’s devastating 2017 fires, emergency departments and radio stations struggled to release correct and timely Spanish-language information.

And there are historical barriers to fire resiliency, Levin said. By far, the most fire vulnerable communities in the West are tribal nations. These patterns of resources and of resilience fit into larger historical realities: While wealthy Americans who are white or Asian American are less likely to live in fire vulnerable communities, Native Americans, regardless of income, are vastly overrepresented in regions that are both fire-prone and fire-vulnerable.

Levin also works with The Nature Conservancy, where he keeps community resilience in mind during wildfire management projects, such as by hiring locally for forest thinning crews. “We can invest economically in a community with jobs, with other financial opportunities, with other programs that help mitigate some of those vulnerability factors,” he said.

“When (a fire) hits, it’s always tragic,” Levin added. “But as we think and plan, there are ways we can help make everybody safer.”

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...