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
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.