Racial and ethnic minorities are more vulnerable to wildfires

Over the last decade, the U.S. has seen an average of 70,512 wildland fires every year, annually burning about 6.8 million acres. With climate change, scientists expect fires to become more frequent and more severe.

However, some people are more affected by these events than others. Our work, published on Nov. 2, shows that racial and ethnic minorities are significantly more vulnerable to the effects of these natural disasters. The results provide a new perspective on where resources to mitigate wildfire threats are best allocated.

We were inspired to study this question by Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophe that ripped through New Orleans in 2005. Black neighborhoods were located in the low-lying, less protected areas of the city, and many lacked the resources to evacuate safely. After the storm cleared, black-owned homes were three times more likely than their white counterparts to be in the flooded parts of the city, and to this day the city’s black population has not rebounded to pre-Katrina population levels.

Other research on floods and hurricanes has shown similarly disproportionate effects on minorities. We wondered if a similar phenomenon existed for wildfires.

This map shows wildfire potential, as determined by the U.S. Forest Service, by census tract. White lines on the map correspond to U.S. census tracts. The potential for an area to burn is calculated by considering factors such as burnable fuels on the landscape, vegetation, weather and historical fire activity. Ian Davies, CC BY
Using data from the U.S. Census, we created an index that characterizes a community’s ability to adapt to wildfires. For example, signs that a community is less able to adapt to a wildfire include a prevalence of older or younger individuals; high rates of poverty; and a high proportion of people who are not fluent English speakers. We then calculated this metric for more than 70,000 census tracts across the U.S. and combined the results with the area’s potential for wildfires, as modeled by the U.S. Forest Service.

Our analysis revealed that wildfire vulnerability is spread unequally across race and ethnicity. Although affluent white Americans are more likely to live in fire-prone areas, non-white communities in fire-prone areas appear less able to adapt to a wildfire event. Communities that are majority black, Hispanic or Native American are over 50 percent more vulnerable to wildfire compared to other communities. Native Americans in particular are six times more likely than other groups to live in the most vulnerable communities.