WASHINGTON — Wealthier and whiter neighborhoods stricken by wildfires are more likely to get help to reduce the risk of future fires, new data suggest, the latest evidence that racial and economic inequality leave some Americans more exposed to the worsening effects of climate change.
The findings, issued Wednesday by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based research group, show that after a wildfire, the federal government is more likely to take steps to reduce the severity of future fires in the same area, but only when the communities nearby are whiter or have higher incomes than average.
“Certain communities are better able to rally 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, Santa Barbara. “It can change the amount of risk communities face.”
The research follows one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in American history. Over time, the combination of rising temperatures and longer dry periods has made fires more frequent and intense. In California alone, fires consumed more than 4 million acres, more than double the previous annual record, destroying more than 10,000 structures.
Wildfires have disproportionately severe effects on poorer households and people of color, who are often more physically exposed, less likely to have insurance and may struggle to rebuild, according to previous research. The latest findings suggest that the government’s decisions after a fire also make a difference, by prioritizing some places over others.
One of the most important ways the federal government can cut wildfire risk is through so-called “fuel treatment” projects: reducing the amount of flammable vegetation in fire-prone areas, using either heavy machinery or by burning it off with a carefully controlled fire, set intentionally and for that purpose. But those projects are expensive, and Congress provides the government with funds to treat just a small fraction of the land at risk from fire each year.
Dr. Wibbenmeyer and his colleagues wanted to find out whether suffering a wildfire would increase a community’s odds of getting a fuel project. They looked at more than 41,000 census blocks that had been within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of a wildfire between 2000 and 2011 and found that most neighborhoods were no more likely to get a fuel project than before.
But in areas that were wealthier, or had a smaller proportion of people of color, the story turned out to be different. Places where all or almost all the residents were white saw their chances of getting a fuel treatment go up by 30 percent. And those odds went up by 40 percent in places where few or no households were below the poverty line.
“This paper shows that similar events can yield very different policy outcomes for different types of communities,” the researchers wrote.
The data doesn’t answer the question of why federal agencies seem to prioritize fuel projects that benefit those communities, Dr. Wibbenmeyer said. The difference could reflect the preferences of staff within those agencies, or the fact that wealthier areas may be better at applying political pressure, pushing those agencies to move them to the top of the list.
More than 90 percent of the federal fuel-treatment projects carried out during the period in question were done by three agencies, according to the paper: The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the National Park Service. Officials from all three agencies said wealth or race had no influence over their decisions about which projects to pursue.
“In collaboration with local stakeholders, science-based risk assessments are conducted by wildland firefighter crews to strategically determine how to best protect people, communities and infrastructure,” Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, which administers one-tenth of all land in the United States, said by email.
Christopher Peters, president of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, which aims to help Native American communities, said Native Americans are disproportionately exposed to wildfires because of where they live, but have a harder time getting federal agencies to reduce fire risk on nearby land. “When it comes to putting the dollars where their mouth is, they provide services to nonnative communities,” Mr. Peters said.
Kimiko Barrett, a researcher and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a wildfire policy consulting nonprofit in Montana, said the government’s struggle to address fire risk more equitably stemmed in part from an outdated understanding about who is in danger.
For decades, Dr. Barrett said, most of the people moving into fire-prone areas were white and well-off. But rising home costs in cities and suburbs are increasingly pushing lower-income and minority families into those areas, she said, and all levels of government need to change their fire policies to reflect that growing economic and racial diversity.
That could mean offering more help clearing vegetation, getting better at evacuating people who don’t speak English from dangers zones or subsidizing improvements to make homes less fire-prone, Dr. Barrett said. But first, policymakers have to recognize that the current system isn’t always fair and the problem is worsening as climate change accelerates.
“Things are happening fast,” she said. “People are having to adjust very, very quickly, at a scale that the federal bureaucracy is not accustomed to.”
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