Racial and ethnic minority communities are far more vulnerable to wildfire than predominantly white communities, according to research published Friday by the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy.
More than 29 million people live in areas with a significant potential for extreme wildfire, many of whom are economically secure and have the means to prepare their homes against fire and evacuate quickly.
But the new study, published in the journal PLOS One, found social and economic factors cause more than 12 million of those people to be especially vulnerable to devastation from a wildfire.
Wildland communities can be made more resilient and even largely fire-resistant. But thinning trees, clearing brush, clearing access roads and ensuring defensible space around rural homes is expensive, and many lack the resources needed for such wildfire precautions.
“The disaster is not necessarily natural,” said Phillip Levin, senior author of the study. “A hurricane is natural, a fire is natural. But the disaster part, what happens to people, isn’t always natural.”
Wildfire seasons have grown longer and more intense in recent years as a result of several factors including the accumulation of forest fuels and drought. This is a trend expected to continue as research shows human-caused climate change will increase the number and severity of wildfires.
“This is yet another example of where we would predict that communities of color disproportionately bear the brunt,” Levin said. Climate is expected to have greater impacts for minority and disadvantaged communities worldwide, from sea level rise to extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes.
The study authors analyzed more than 70,000 census tracts across the U.S. to determine the likelihood and severity of potential wildfires. To measure those communities’ ability to adapt to fire, they measured demographic and socioeconomic factors such as income, language, education housing status, age and access to transportation — all of which have been linked to a community’s ability to adapt to hazards.
Their analysis found census tracts with majority Black and Hispanic populations were 50 percent more vulnerable to wildfire disasters. They found Native Americans were six times times more vulnerable to wildfire than would be expected if all things were equal.
However, historically many indigenous Americans developed views of fire not as a disaster or scourge but as a tool. Northwest tribes developed burning techniques and set fire to landscapes to select for certain foods, to regenerate shrubs for basket materials and draw animals like deer and elk so they could hunt more easily.
“The tribes have a perspective that fire is medicine,” Frank Lake, who works for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station Fire and Fuels Program, recently told “Oregon Field Guide.”
Indigenous Americans used fire for centuries before the U.S. government effectively banned their burning practices in the early 1910s, around the same time the government began a policy of suppressing all wildfires.
Now, state and federal plans to reverse the counterproductive effects of fire suppression and reduce wildfire hazards rely on many of those same techniques first developed by tribes.
Those government programs fail to reduce hazardous fuels faster than they accumulate, according to U.S. Forest Service data, meaning the wildfire risk to those vulnerable communities worsens each year.