This blog is part of a series on the intersection of climate justice and climate hazards. Through this series we explore major climate hazards, how marginalized populations are impacted by them, and the policy solutions that could lead to more equitable, resilient communities.
In the Western United States, wildfire “season” is shifting to wildfire “year.” Warmer and drier weather, reduced snowpack, and early snowmelt are creating more dry vegetation, causing wildfire season to start earlier and last longer. Longer and more destructive wildfire seasons pose increased risks to people and property. Importantly, they can also exacerbate existing inequities for historically marginalized communities.
The scale of the problem is vast. In 2020, almost 59,000 fires burned more than ten million acres, just shy of a 40-year record. Current statistics point to another severe wildfire year, fueled in part by record-breaking droughts and heatwaves.
Climate change is accelerating the risk of massive wildfires and outpacing capacity to manage fires. The dry conditions are also sidelining the use of controlled burns to manage vegetation, a key strategy to mitigate the damage of wildfires.
The latest climate models and record-breaking wildfires signal that the country needs a new strategy to keep communities safe, one that focuses not only on managing and fighting fires but on building resilience to wildfires and their impacts. To protect those most at-risk, this strategy must address the needs and vulnerabilities of low-income communities and communities of color.
While residence in wildfire-prone areas is not exclusive to low-income communities and people of color, a combination of socioeconomic and physical factors can make some communities especially vulnerable to the impacts. Native Americans are six times more likely to live in wildfire-prone areas than other groups. And according to a new study from climate risk modeler risQ, Latino residents make up 37 percent of people living in areas with extreme wildfire risk. Their vulnerability is both the result of living in wildfire-prone areas and their adaptive capacity—resources to prepare for and recover from fires, or lacking for them. For example, rising housing costs drive many families to seek affordable homes in high-risk areas of the wildland-urban interface (WUI). But low-income residents often can’t afford wildfire insurance, or fire-resistant retrofitting and landscaping that mitigates damage. Wildfires then exacerbate the housing crisis by displacing low-income residents who can’t afford to rebuild. Lacking access to a car and being a non-native speaker also puts members of low low-income communities and communities of color at increased risk during evacuations.
Not only are historically marginalized communities more vulnerable to the direct impacts of wildfire, but recent research points to inequity in the distribution of wildfire mitigation resources. For example, vulnerable communities that are typically wealthier, more educated, and with larger percentages of white residents are more likely to receive federal support for preventative fuel treatments after experiencing a fire. This occurs, in part, because these communities have a greater capacity to put together winning grant applications. Smaller, low-income communities may also struggle to meet fund-matching requirements for federal grants—a trend that contributes to more federal mitigation and resilience funds going to larger, wealthier communities.
Some strategies to avoid uncontrolled wildfires can also trigger other socioeconomic and environmental stressors, including public safety power shut-offs. In dry, windy conditions, trees and powerlines can make contact and spark fires. Utilities can temporarily cut electricity to the lines to help reduce these risks; however, power shut-offs create greater financial burdens and health risks for vulnerable residents who miss work, lose spoiled groceries, and struggle to stay cool or power medical equipment.
The federal government has taken steps to bolster wildfire mitigation resources and is considering additional measures. Spurred forward by concern for firefighter burnout, the Agriculture and Interior departments recently implemented a $15 minimum wage increase for federal firefighters. Other proposals in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, such as additional funding for hazardous fuel reduction and the establishment of Community Wildfire Defense Grants are important steps in helping local communities build resilience to wildfires. To protect the most vulnerable populations however, solutions focused on wildfire resilience must address the disproportionate needs and vulnerabilities of historically marginalized communities.
Additional funding for pre-disaster mitigation and climate resilience can help communities implement mitigation practices to protect against devastating wildfires and build back resiliently. To ensure that vulnerable communities have equitable access to these resources, federal agencies, such as FEMA, can centralize federal resilience funding information and streamline federal grant application processes. Establishing resilience liaisons across federal agencies can also help local leaders overcome information barriers in accessing these resources. Further, Congress can increase low-income communities’ access to federal funding by instituting more flexible match requirements for grant programs that require cost-share, including FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure program and the newly proposed Community Wildfire Defense Grants.
Investments in grid modernization and resilience can also reduce the need for public safety power shut-offs. Efforts to accelerate these investments, including burying power lines and installing fire-resistant poles, are already underway. Congress can add needed momentum with additional funding and incentives for power companies. This funding could include, for example, a Department of Energy matching grant program for power companies to increase the resilience of their operations, with priority for low-income communities in the WUI.
C2ES recommends that the federal government take these actions and others to accelerate local resilience, outlined in our newly-released Federal Policy Action Plan to Accelerate Local Climate Resilience.
State & Local Governments:
State and local governments can help historically marginalized communities build resilience to wildfires by incorporating their needs and vulnerabilities into regulatory programs and policies. For example, a state retrofit assistance program could provide no or low-cost loans to help low-income homeowners adopt fire resistant materials and landscaping. Similar programs could incentivize landlords to make their rental properties more wildfire resilient, improving protections for renters. Several state and local governments are also considering measures to disincentivize development in wildfire-prone areas and relocate displaced residents to low-risk areas. However, these solutions may imply a trade-off in reducing immediate wildfire risk and addressing its root causes, such as a shortfall of affordable housing in less vulnerable areas. Co-creating solutions with local communities, who are often best equipped to identify their needs, can help ensure that these solutions do not deepen existing inequities for historically marginalized communities.
Building resilience to wildfires allows communities to anticipate, prepare for, and build back better-prepared for future fires. To protect all communities from wildfires, solutions must prioritize historically marginalized communities and be created in collaboration with them. Doing so will help ensure that our strategies for adapting to wildfire help alleviate, rather than exacerbate inequalities for low-income communities and communities of color.