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Wildfires disproportionately impact low-income people. Here’s how communities can protect them

Wildfires affect poorer communities—and insurers are pulling out of those areas. Could a new California policy address the problem?

Wildfires disproportionately impact low-income people. Here’s how communities can protect them
Remnants of a community in the aftermath of the 2021 Cache Fire in Clearlake, CA. [Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Though it’s 98% contained today, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has been burning in New Mexico since April, becoming the largest fire in the state’s history. By late June, it had burned through almost 350,000 acres and destroyed 900 structures. More troubling still is that most of the counties impacted are lower income, including Mora County, whose median household income is $28,000–far below than the national average of $68,000.

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When fires strike such areas, cash-strapped homeowners find it hard to deal with recovery, let alone protect properties in advance. A new study found that this isn’t uncommon. Wildfires disproportionately impact lower-income people, partly due to the rural areas that fires blaze through. The study also found that there are more counties at risk from wildfires than previously thought. To compound that, some insurance companies have stopped covering these regions, leaving fewer options–and often the companies that do stay will cancel people’s plans unless they update their homes to be fireproof, which is costly. California has recently taken measures to protect those people and, if it works, it could provide a policy model for other states.

The researchers found a strong overlap between wildfire risk and high poverty rates, quashing myths that fires mainly affect “people with second homes or . . . in wealthy mansions,” says Matthew Auer, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at University of Georgia, and a coauthor of the study that ran in the Forests journal. They found more counties in wildfire-prone zones than previously believed, thanks to high-quality data from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that provides a national wildfire risk model, which is higher-resolution and more up to date than the U.S. Forest Service’s data. And most people in those counties are low-income earners and underserved. In 12 of the most wildfire-prone states, 60% of the counties are designated as high poverty.

What’s more, insurers contribute to residents’ financial hardship. There has been an exodus of insurers from these areas, leaving just a few to dominate the markets, which lets them drive up coverage costs. “There are comparatively few insurance companies that are making risk decisions for the majority of homeowners,” Auer says.

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Often, insurers threaten to not renew plans, or cancel them outright, unless homeowners make substantial property changes, including fireproofing roofs, windows, and walls, removing vegetation and debris, and keeping outer buildings like sheds at least 30 feet from the property. For people building new homes, it can be cost-effective to do this work up front (although depending on the materials, it can cost upwards of $44,000). Still, these reports don’t consider lower-income people who need to retrofit existing homes. “Define who we’re talking about,” Auer says, stressing that these kinds of requirements have a disparate impact depending on where you live. “If we’re talking about people in Ventura County, California, that’s one thing. If we’re talking about people in Mora or San Miguel County in New Mexico, it’s different.”

Even in California, a comparatively richer state than New Mexico, wildfires mostly affect lower-income people. Currently, the McKinney wildfire, the biggest of this year in the state, is raging in 56,000 acres in Siskiyou County, and it was 0% contained as of Tuesday. Siskiyou County has a mean household income of $47,000.

But California is the first state to have rolled out a policy to help residents stay insured. The Safer From Wildfires program reserves federal funds for residents in wildfire-prone areas to make necessary and specified updates to their homes, in order to qualify for fair insurance policies. According to an email from California’s insurance commissioner’s office, they will also require insurers to create wildfire risk scores and share them with consumers, in the interest of transparency, so that both parties know what changes they need to make to be eligible for coverage. The state will provide oversight and allow consumers to appeal.

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The state hopes that this will also act as an incentive for insurers to stay in the state, as it should minimize complaints. What remains to be seen, Auer says, is whether the companies do “a fair, credible, empirically robust job” when they calculate risk scores. “But my guess will be that the companies that have the most market share are going to take this pretty seriously.”

This is the first year of its implementation, so it’s too early to judge its success. The hope is that it will keep people from having to purchase insurances of last resort, where extremely at-risk individuals have to buy coverage from the state at premiums way above market rates. “If Safer From Wildfires is successful, it should begin to reduce the number of people who have to take out that high-risk pool insurance,” Auer says.

It could also provide a model for other states as wildfires worsen, Auer says. But many fire-prone states are less politically progressive, including Idaho, Oklahoma, and Texas, and Republican legislators may be reluctant to spend public dollars. Still, Auer says it may not come to that. Insurance providers may voluntarily create policies to avoid government intervention, such as producing wildfire risk scores as they’ve been forced to do in California. “Because if [they] don’t, [they’ll] have to deal with it down the road in the form of a regulation,” he says.

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In the meantime, Auer recommends a more widespread adoption of Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs). These involve multiple stakeholders, including local government, nonprofits, businesses, homeowners, and homeowners associations, and use robust data to prepare for wildfires, plan a response, and lay out recovery options. The best CWPPs–like the one in Boulder, Colorado–address questions on a granular level, including: Are there natural barriers to restrict the movement of fires? Are roads developed enough to accommodate trucks for fighting fires? Is there enough water flow for firefighters, and is there a nearby reservoir?

The best part about CWPPs, Auer says, is that they naturally bridge common interests from all involved, rather than feeling like a regulatory or government mandate. And they can be simple. “Just getting started and beginning to wrap your mind around that work is better than nothing,” he says. After all, for such complex situations and fast-spreading disasters, individual approaches only go so far. If a neighbor is affected, so are you. “The solution set going forward is probably going to take the form of all hands on deck,” he says.

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