Communities of color among most vulnerable in wildfires, UW study shows

A wildfire in Washington. University of Washington researchers found that communities of color are more vulnerable than other populations to wildfires. (Photo courtesy the University of Washington.)

Black, Native American and Hispanic communities face 50 percent greater vulnerability during wildfires compared with other communities, researchers with University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy announced last week.

Native Americans in particular were six times more likely than other groups to live in areas prone to wildfires, according to the groups’ findings, which were funded by the Nature Conservancy.

The announcement from the University of Washington said in part:

In the case of Native Americans, historical forced relocation onto reservations — mostly rural, remote areas that are more prone to wildfires — combined with greater levels of vulnerability due to socioeconomic barriers make it especially hard for these communities to recover after a large wildfire.

“Our findings help dispel some myths surrounding wildfires — in particular, that avoiding disaster is simply a matter of eliminating fuels and reducing fire hazards, or that wildfire risk is constrained to rural, white communities,” said senior author Phil Levin, a UW professor in environmental and forest sciences and lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy in Washington. “We can see that the impacts of recent fires were exacerbated for low-income residents facing a shortage of affordable housing, for example, and for Hispanic residents for whom English is not their first language.”

The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

In 2015, The Seattle Globalist looked at the effect that the lack of resources to fight devastating wildfires on the Yakama and Colville nations. National and international assistance were directed to more populated communities in Washington state. About 6 percent, or about 41,000 acres, of the Yakama’s forest lands were burned and on the Colville reservation, fire destroyed 15 homes and about 20 percent, or 270,000 acres, of reservation land.

Further reading

The Seattle Globalist: When firefighting resources are thin, reservations are left to burn

University of Washington: Racial, ethnic minorities face greater vulnerability to wildfires