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Low-income households are most threatened by wildfire

In the United States, lower-income homeowners have a greater risk of wildfire exposure, according to a new study from the University of Georgia. The experts report that these Americans also face canceled home insurance policies and rising premiums. 

Tens of thousands of homes and livelihoods have already been threatened by this year’s ongoing wildfire season in the United States. Deadly fires are currently raging in California, Idaho, and Utah, and roughly two million acres have burned throughout the region in the last month alone. 

The researchers found that counties with moderate-to-high wildfire risk are more likely to have higher poverty rates. The study also revealed that most of these counties are located in states that are dominated by just a few insurance companies. 

“The overlap of wildfire risk, poverty and concentrated insurance markets should get people thinking about policies and interventions to help the most vulnerable homeowners,” said study lead author Matthew Auer.

The researchers compared the average number of acres burned each year between 2016 and 2020. They identified the 14 states with the highest wildfire risk in the country: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Across these states, there are 98 counties with a high wildfire risk. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that about 60 percent of the high-risk counties had high rates of poverty. Only two of the 14 states – Oklahoma and Wyoming – did not have a high-risk county.

The researchers also found – based on data from the nonprofit First Street Foundation – that there were more counties at high risk of wildfire than what was previously estimated by the U.S. Forest Service.

“The First Street Foundation data should give everybody pause because in it there are entire states that have comparatively high wildfire risk,” said Auer. “States we tend not to think about as majorly susceptible to destructive wildfire are in harm’s way, including, for example, Nebraska and Oklahoma. None of us, really, in this day and age can be blasé about wildfire risk.”

The insurance companies that are not leaving wildfire-prone areas are raising the prices for coverage while reducing what their policies actually cover. According to the researchers, protection against wildfires may require government intervention in insurance industry. 

“For folks who are in poorer counties, homeowners don’t have as much flexibility, and they don’t have the ability to afford all of the wildfire prevention strategies that may be required by the few companies willing to insure homes in wildfire-prone areas,” Auer said. “This issue hasn’t been addressed in some states, and it needs to be because the situation we see today is just going to get worse.”

The study is published in the journal Forests.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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