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Frequent wildfires more likely to hit low-income communities, new report finds

A resident who stayed in Foresthill despite an evacuation order due to the Mosquito Fire, takes a picture of the wildfire's plume Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
Andrew Nixon
A resident who stayed in Foresthill despite an evacuation order due to the Mosquito Fire, takes a picture of the wildfire's plume Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

A new report authored by researchers at Stanford and University of North Carolina found that areas experiencing frequent wildfires tend to be low-income.

California’s fire hazard maps look at environmental factors that increase the likelihood of a fire when evaluating at-risk areas. The communities found in the “high-hazard” places identified by the tool are often wealthier. But when looking at areas that face frequent wildfires, this report offers a different perspective.

“What we've done tells a very different story than what research to date has shown,” said Miyuki Hino, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lead author of the report. “If you look at it from this other indicator, you get almost the opposite picture than if you just look at, for example, the hazard maps in California that we tend to use, actually quite a lot, in making decisions about risk management.”

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, helped write the report. He said its results surprised him.

“We didn't see at all the pattern that we thought we would see based on the [state hazard] maps,” he said. “But the pattern we expected of fire risk potentially pushing down incomes and pushing down real estate prices, we did see when we quantified the amount of risk based on the number of historical fires that the community had seen.”

Hino said this research could help the state better understand the varying impacts wildfires have on communities. She said looking at metrics like property damage costs, for example, can paint a skewed picture since wealthier areas are more likely to report higher dollar amounts.

“People with smaller homes and lower value homes might not show up in those numbers as much as a small number of really high value homes,” Hino said. “Part of understanding the impact burden truly is moving away from those figures to try to understand more fully what's going on in a community that's affected.”

Hino said low-income communities experiencing frequent wildfires can face an increased burden due to compounding impacts. Some of this could include persistent air pollution and long-term impacts on schools and community centers.

“One thing to keep in mind with wildfire impacts is that they're so multi-dimensional,” Hino said. “We focus a lot on how many houses were damaged or destroyed, but there is a huge range of impacts beyond that.”

Moving forward, Field said this research could help California officials when determining how to most effectively allocate resources. While hazard maps are helpful, he said they shouldn’t be the only tool the state depends on when making these decisions.

“What we should do is recognize that we need a distribution of resources with good focus on the things the state maps as high risk areas, but also on areas that have had high fire experience,” he said.

Hino added that as the climate changes and California experiences more wildfires, it’s likely that other communities will face the burden of frequent fire damage. With that in mind, she said it’s important that the state assess the hazards that communities face when dealing with those frequent fires, even if they are smaller.

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