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Wildfires disproportionately affect low-income Americans, study finds

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A firefighting helicopter flies near smoke and flames at the McKinney Fire, in the Klamath National Forest near Yreka, California, on August 2, 2022. DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

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As wildfires burn in the west, new research from the University of Georgia finds that wildfires disproportionately affect lower-income people. And the overlap between that risk and concentrated insurance markets leaves residents with few options.

The study looked at data from almost 100 counties around the U.S. and found that the ones most prone to wildfires are also more likely to have high poverty rates. 

Matthew Auer is a dean at the University of Georgia and the study’s author. He said it’s harder for people who are low income to afford that risk. Obviously to replace what they lose in a fire, but also to get insurance – because insurers are getting stricter about what you need to do to qualify for coverage. They might ask you to make some costly changes. 

“It could be roofing materials that are resistant to fire, it could be dual pane windows, it could be putting steel mesh over the vents in your attic and in your soffits of your home. And these these kinds of changes can add up,” he said.

For someone who has a second or third home in a place susceptible to wildfires, maybe those expenses aren’t such a big deal. Phillip Levin at the University of Washington said those folks are choosing to own a home in a wildfire prone area.

“And they have means to adapt. That same thing isn’t true for people who are constrained to live in those areas because of social, economic or historical reasons.”

Levin has done research on how wildfire risk overlaps with poverty, race, and ethnicity. 

Other research on this topic from UC Irvine found that older folks are more likely to live in places with a high risk of wildfires. 

That study’s author, research scientist Shahir Masri, said what we’re seeing here is how climate change and its effects – like worsening wildfires – are linked to inequality, whether we’re talking about floods or air pollution or extreme heat waves.

“I just wrote a piece on the impacts in Las Vegas, you’ve got a lot of your low-income communities that simply can’t afford to blast their air conditioning, you know, 24 hours a day, or even repair an old air conditioner,” he said.

So people in those communities die because of money. 

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