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Wildfires amplify risks for socially vulnerable populations in Western states

A recent study has revealed that socially vulnerable groups in the West, particularly in Oregon and Washington, face a heightened exposure to wildfires. As wildfire risks amplify, these findings spotlight a critical intersection of environmental and societal challenges.

Understanding social vulnerability

Social vulnerability refers to specific traits of individuals or communities, including age, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, that increase their likelihood of harm from potential hazards. 

Over the decade from 2011 to 2021, there was a significant rise in the exposure of socially vulnerable individuals to wildfires in Oregon, Washington, and California. The exposure of such groups increased threefold compared to the previous decade.

Inequitable effects 

Study co-author Erica Fleishman is a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University and also directs the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute

“There has been general knowledge that the number of destructive wildfires and total impacted population are increasing and that hazards have inequitable effects on people,” said Professor Fleishman. 

“This research is helping us understand how much more risk people are facing, where and why. The risks are clearly higher for the people who are going to have more difficulty recovering.”

Focus of the study

The study was led by doctoral student Arash Modaresi Rad from Boise State University and his mentor, Mojtaba Sadegh, an associate professor of Civil Engineering. 

The researchers examined satellite imagery, U.S. Census data, and population maps to grasp the links between wildfire exposure and social vulnerability from 2000 through 2021.

During this time span, roughly 500,000 individuals in Oregon, Washington, and California were directly affected by wildfires. A significant majority of these affected individuals resided in California.

Disproportionate risks

The researchers used data from the Social Vulnerability Index from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This index gauges a community’s readiness and ability to address and recover from hazards, using parameters like socioeconomic status, minority status, housing, and transportation. 

The analysis showed that while fire risks surged for everyone, socially vulnerable groups faced a disproportionate escalation in risk.

The variations in vulnerability among the three states are pronounced. For instance, in California, a mere 8% of those affected by wildfires were from high vulnerability groups, translating to almost 37,000 individuals. 

In contrast, Oregon and Washington saw exposure rates of 45% and 44% respectively for their socially vulnerable populations.

Urban vs. rural exposure

One intriguing revelation from the study was the difference in wildfire exposure based on urban and rural settings. California’s majority of exposed individuals lived in cities, while those in Oregon and Washington predominantly resided in rural areas.

“These data show that there is no single strategy for wildfire preparation and response,” Fleishman said. “Instead, they indicate responses might be honed to reflect the needs of individual communities with different risk factors.”

In some areas, that may mean paying particular attention to residents who are older or mobility limited, and in other areas, it might mean adapting materials to ensure they can reach non-English speaking communities, said the researchers.

“The underlying factors, such as business decisions, that exacerbate climate change and increase wildfire risk also decrease the resilience of at-risk communities,” Sadegh said. “A more just and equitable economy can mitigate the compounded effects of physical and social vulnerabilities.”

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

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