Who Faces Big Threat From Wildfires? The Answer May Surprise You

News Picture: Who Faces Big Threat From Wildfires? The Answer May Surprise You

TUESDAY, Nov. 6, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- When wildfires strike, minority communities are especially vulnerable, a new study finds.

"A general perception is that communities most affected by wildfires are affluent people living in rural and suburban communities near forested areas," said study lead author Ian Davies.

"But there are actually millions of people who live in areas that have a high wildfire potential and are very poor, or don't have access to vehicles or other resources, which makes it difficult to adapt or recover from a wildfire disaster," said Davie, a graduate student at the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, in Seattle.

He made his comments in a university news release.

For the study, the researchers used Census data to assess wildfire risk in communities nationwide.

Overall, more than 29 million Americans live in areas with significant potential for serious wildfires. Many of those people are white and well-off, but 12 million are considered "socially vulnerable" to wildfires based on socioeconomic factors.

The researchers found that communities that are mostly black, Hispanic or Native American are 50 percent more vulnerable to wildfires than mainly white communities. Native Americans are particularly vulnerable because they're six times more likely than other groups to live in areas most prone to wildfires and have more difficulty recovering from wildfires.

The study's senior author, Phil Levin, said, "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." Levin is a professor in environmental and forest sciences at the University of 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," Levin said.

The study was published Nov. 2 in the journal PLoS One.

-- Robert Preidt

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SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, Nov. 2, 2018