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Study: As wildfires grow, poor, elderly disproportionately affected

Three fires converged in 2020, destroying over 1,500 structures in the Santiam Canyon, which included massive destruction to the city of Detroit, shown here.
Oregon State University
Three fires converged in 2020, destroying over 1,500 structures in the Santiam Canyon, which included massive destruction to the city of Detroit, shown here.

People who are poor, older, suffer from disabilities or have unstable housing face a disproportionate threat from wildfires, a new study found.

The research, published in the journal Science Advances, looked at areas hit by wildfires between 2000 and 2021. It found that nearly a half a million people on the West Coast had homes in wildfire zones. Almost all lived in California, but thousands also resided in Oregon and Washington, and the northwesterners were more socially vulnerable to suffering harm from wildfires than Californians, the study said.

That finding was based on data from satellite imagery, the U.S. Census and population maps and a federal social vulnerability index from 2000 through 2021. The index, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, considers 15 factors grouped into four areas: socioeconomic status, household composition and disability, minority status and language, and housing type and transportation.

Erica Fleishman, an Oregon State University professor and co-author of the study, said researchers found that 8% of Californians exposed to wildfires between 2000 and 2021 had a high social vulnerability rating. That compared with 45% in Oregon, where about a quarter of the overall population has a high social vulnerability ranking, Fleishman said.

And across the three states, those with high vulnerability who were exposed to wildfires tended to live in mobile homes and be at least 65 years old, Fleishman said.

”People who are older, a lot of the time, they don’t have as much mobility, and they may not have as much of a social support network,” Fleishman said.

They also are likely to be on a fixed or lower income.

“If you don’t have money in the bank and you’re out of your home, your options are limited,” Fleishman said.

And the problem is getting worse, the study found: From 2011 to 2021, the number of highly vulnerable people exposed to wildfires in Oregon, Washington and California more than tripled compared to the previous decade. In Oregon, the number of highly vulnerable people exposed to wildfires grew more than 18-fold: from 487 to 9,526, Fleishman said.

And with climate change and an expected increase in the number of wildfires, those numbers could continue to grow. Fleishman said the increase in the number of people with high vulnerability in wildfire zones is linked to the growth of wildfires.

“This research is helping us understand how much more risk people are facing, where and why,” Fleishman said.

In Oregon, those who were most vulnerable in wildfire zones did not represent a higher number of people from minority communities. Rather, they had lower incomes, were disproportionately affected by disabilities, lacked transportation and had less stable housing.

The authors hope lawmakers and state agency officials will keep the study in mind when crafting policies and programs for people in wildfire zones.

“These data show that there is no single strategy for wildfire preparation and response,” Fleishman said. “Instead, they indicate responses might be honed to reflect the needs of individual communities with different risk factors.”

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.