WASHINGTON – Wealthier and whiter areas hit by forest fires are more likely to receive help to reduce the risk of future fires. New data suggests that some Americans are more exposed to the deteriorating effects of climate change because of racial and economic inequality.
The results, released on Wednesday by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based research group, show that following a devastating fire, the federal government is more likely to take steps to reduce the severity of future fires in the same area, but only if nearby communities are whiter or have higher than average incomes.
“Certain communities are better placed to raise government support,” said Matthew Wibbenmeyer, an economist and researcher at Resources for the Future, who wrote the paper with Sarah Anderson and Andrew Plantinga, professors at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It can change the number of communities at risk.”
The research follows one of the most devastating forest fire seasons in American history. Over time, the combination of rising temperatures and longer dry spells has made fires more frequent and more intense. In California alone, fires have consumed more than 4 million acres, more than double the previous year’s record, and destroyed more than 10,000 buildings.
Forest fires have a disproportionately severe impact on poorer households and people of color, who are often more physically exposed, less insured and, according to previous studies, may have difficulties in reconstruction. The latest evidence suggests that government decisions after a fire also make a difference in that some places take precedence over others.
One of the most important ways in which the federal government can reduce the risk of forest fires are so-called “fuel treatment projects”: reducing the amount of combustible vegetation in fire-prone areas, either with heavy machinery or by burning it down with a carefully controlled fire, deliberately and for this purpose. These projects are expensive, however, and Congress provides funding for the government to treat only a small portion of the fire-vulnerable land each year.
Dr. Wibbenmeyer and his colleagues wanted to find out if wildfire would increase a community’s chances of getting a fuel project. They examined more than 41,000 census blocks that were within 2 kilometers of a devastating fire between 2000 and 2011, and found that most neighborhoods are more likely than before to receive a fuel project.
But in areas that were richer or had fewer colored people, the story turned out to be different. In places where all or almost all of the residents were white, the chances of fuel treatment increased by 30 percent. And those chances rose by 40 percent in places where few or no households were below the poverty line.
“This paper shows that similar events can lead to very different policy outcomes for different types of communities,” the researchers wrote.
The data doesn’t answer why federal agencies appear to be prioritizing fuel projects that benefit these communities, said Dr. Wibbenmeyer. The difference could reflect the preferences of the employees in these agencies, or the fact that more affluent areas may be better at applying political pressure and leading these agencies to put them at the top of the list.
More than 90 percent of federal fuel treatment projects carried out during the period in question were carried out by three agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service, according to the paper. Officials from all three agencies said wealth or race did not affect their decisions about which projects to pursue.
“In collaboration with local stakeholders, science-based risk assessments of fire fighters in the wilderness are carried out to strategically determine how best to protect people, communities and infrastructure,” said Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, one tenth of managed all land in the United States, said via email.
Christopher Peters, president of the Seventh Generation Indigenous Peoples Fund, which aims to help Native American communities, said Native Americans are disproportionately exposed to forest fires because of their location, but it is more difficult to get federal agencies to reduce the risk of fire on nearby land. “When it comes to getting the dollars where they are, they provide services to non-indigenous communities,” Peters said.
Kimiko Barrett, a researcher and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit for Wildfire Policy Consulting in Montana, said the government’s fight to address fire risk more fairly was due in part to an outdated understanding of who is at risk.
Dr. Barrett said that most of the people who moved to fire-prone areas were white and wealthy for decades. But rising housing costs in cities and suburbs are increasingly pushing low-income families and minority groups into these areas, and all levels of government need to change fire prevention policies to accommodate this growing economic and racial diversity.
That could mean offering more help clearing up vegetation, better evacuating people who don’t speak English from danger zones, or subsidizing improvements to make homes less fire prone, said Dr. Barrett. But first, policymakers need to recognize that the current system is not always fair and that the problem is getting worse as climate change accelerates.
“Things are moving quickly,” she said. “People have to adapt very, very quickly to an extent that the federal bureaucracy is not used to.”