Wealthiest Homeowners Experience Highest Wildfire Hazard Risk
A peer-reviewed study, published today in Environmental Research Letters, shows that hazards from recent wildfires disproportionately affect both the highest- and lowest-value properties in the American West.
The top ten percent most-valuable homes in the western United States are 70 percent more likely to be in high wildfire hazard areas than median-value properties, measured by county, according to a new study published today in Environmental Research Letters.
Researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) used granular spatial data to study residential properties in the western United States and their relative risk of wildfire exposure. The team studied properties’ location, value, community characteristics, and proximity to previous wildfires.
The study shows that hazard and impact from recent wildfires are disproportionately borne by high-income, white, and elderly communities, and by owners of high-value properties. However, the research also reveals disproportionate exposure to wildfire hazard among the lowest-value homes in the western United States, and among Native American communities.
Exposure to wildfire hazard often goes hand in hand with access to benefits like beautiful views, recreational opportunities, and proximity to nature. As a result, exposure to wildfires differs from other anthropogenic hazards such as pollution or waste facilities, which overwhelmingly affect vulnerable communities.
In recent years, the western United States has seen a dramatic increase in wildfires because of climate change and past forest- and fire-management practices. Policymakers are weighing options for how to distribute the costs of wildfire suppression and mitigation across households in both low- and high-hazard areas.
“In spite of increased attention to the distribution of environmental and climate-related risks across socioeconomic groups, and its relevance to current wildfire-related policy debates, the distribution of wildfire hazard was previously not well understood,” comments RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer, lead author of the paper.
“Wildfire mitigation policies that deliver financial assistance to high-hazard areas could be subsidizing wealthy households. However, high-wildfire-hazard areas are quite heterogeneous, so addressing concerns associated with costs of increasing wildfire hazard may call for a geographically targeted approach focused on reducing the burden for the most vulnerable communities,” adds coauthor Molly Robertson, an RFF research associate.
For more, read the open-access paper, "The Distributional Incidence of Wildfire Hazard in the Western United States," by RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer and Research Associate Molly Robertson in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
This press release was created in collaboration with IOP Publishing.
Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.
Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer is a fellow at RFF. His research seeks to understand climate impacts and climate mitigation policies related to the forest and land sectors, with a special focus on wildfire.