This year, California’s record-breaking fires caused untold suffering and destruction, and future wildfire seasons are expected to be even worse. New findings show that poorer communities of colour aren’t receiving as much funding to prepare for future fires as their wealthier, white counterparts.
The new research, published by environmental research group Resources for the Future on Wednesday, focuses on steps the U.S. federal government takes to reduce fire severity. Specifically, it examines funding for projects designed to remove flammable foliage on public lands by either thinning vegetation mechanically or using controlled burns.
“In general, the goal is to reduce the severity of a fire when it occurs, which can aid in controlling fires near homes,” Andrew Plantinga, a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored the study, wrote in an email.
These projects are expensive but necessary, especially after decades of mismanagement that have left forests primed to burn. And with more people moving to what’s known as the wildland-urban interface while forests simultaneously heat up and dry out due to the climate crisis, rebalancing forests is becoming even more necessary to keep people safe.
The authors crunched the numbers on where exactly the government — specifically the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and National Park Service — focuses projects of this kind, examining over 41,000 census blocks that had been within 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) of a wildfire between 2000 and 2011.
They found that all else equal, these agencies were up to 25% more likely to fund fuel treatment near communities where more than half of of residents are white and live above the poverty line. Neighbourhoods with nearly all-white residents had a 30% higher chance of receiving a fuel treatment nearby, and areas where almost no residents were living in poverty had a 40% increased likelihood.
The findings are particularly troubling in light of a major 2018 study, which found that people of colour and low-income people are far more vulnerable to wildfires’ devastation. The findings show that Indigenous Americans are six times more vulnerable to the impacts of wildfires than white people, and that Black and Latino people are about 50% more vulnerable.
“Many individuals in rural areas, low-income neighbourhoods, and immigrant communities do not have access to the resources necessary to pay for insurance, rebuilding, or continual investment in fire safety, thereby increasing their vulnerability to wildfire,” the authors wrote.
It’s not completely clear why the discrepancies uncovered by the new report exist. Plantinga said the study didn’t identify whether the differences stemmed from decision makers’ bias, wealthy, white communities have more political influence, or another confluence of factors.
The study does, however, show that white and wealthy communities are more likely to take part in the National Fire Protection Association’s voluntary program Firewise USA, under which neighbourhoods form committees of residents to assess wildfire risk and develop plans to reduce their risks, suggesting that the latter may be a part of the explanation.
Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, said this “makes sense on an intuitive level.” He is based in Ventura County, California, and when the fires blazed this past summer, he and his organisation worked to make information more accessible to Latinx communities by translating useful websites, alerts, and social media posts into Spanish.
“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” he wrote in an email. “Affluent and white communities are able to demand fire prevention interventions more effectively because of their greater access to decision makers, resources and time.”
Zucker said that since the massive 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, he has seen fire prevention efforts and education focused on richer areas.
“We’ve seen much larger efforts devoted to community dialogue and planning for fire prevention in wealthy beachside Santa Barbara where the fire ended than the rural farmworker town of Santa Paula where the fire started,” he said. “Santa Barbara has a far larger ecosystem of nonprofits and funders, strong representation from state and federal representatives who live there, and a population who is more able to spend time and effort on these types of community initiatives.”
There are many ways to boost equity in fire protection, including providing materials in all languages commonly spoken by residents in a given area and better educating all communities on how to engage with federal agencies for help. California officials should also work to halt development in fire-prone areas, where increasing numbers of low-income people are moving. The federal government should also work to take the onus off communities to advocate for themselves to obtain fire aid, providing more funding so that all areas are protected from future blazes.