California wildfires: Mapping social vulnerability

Source(s): Direct Relief

By Leah Squires

In the past few years, the severity of California wildfires has intensified, a shift with strong ties to climate change, as the landscape becomes increasingly arid and temperatures rise. This year alone has seen two of the most devastating fires in California’s history.

The Camp Fire is California’s deadliest and most destructive fire to date, having claimed 84 lives with hundreds of people still missing. The fire ripped through Butte County, and thousands of residents remain displaced. The blaze is currently at 95 percent containment, but even when the flames are extinguished, recovery will likely take many years.

The Mendocino Complex Fire (combined River and Ranch Fires) in July ravaged nearly 460,000 acres, surpassing the record set by 2017’s Thomas Fire.

Such disasters are often described as indiscriminate — striking any community in their path — and California wildfires are no exception. While the devastation is universal and reveals that anyone can be affected, not everyone will recover the same.

Similar scenes of wildfire destruction don’t capture embedded inequities, which persist long after the smoke finally clears. Imagine a community that has a lower high school graduation rate or higher minority population, maybe there are more single parent households or fewer transportation options available. Elderly populations are also more likely to be on a fixed income and have significant chronic health problems and movement limitations. These factors are usually suggestive of both less financially stable households and communities that are historically marginalized during development efforts.

Without robust resources and a secure safety net, people in socially vulnerable communities may not have the means or physical ability to avoid a disaster, let alone rebuild. Understanding who is at risk means identifying what areas may need additional funding or greater physical support to recover.

The CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index uses such social factors — from employment status to types of housing structures to whether residents own a car — to calculate a community’s vulnerability. Higher vulnerability rates put communities at greater risk for being unable to respond to or recover from crises.

The map above explores which communities are socially vulnerable overlaid with the boundaries of recent California wildfires. (Map by Leah Squires for Direct Relief)

A closer look at those impacted by recent fires illustrates that these disasters do hit all manner of people, across the entire state. People are susceptible regardless of location, from Northern to Southern California, to whether in a city or on the forest’s edge.

Socio-economic differences between fire sites like Woolsey and Camp illustrate the stark disparity between those affected. This variation across California should not be used to belittle the calamity or trauma, but rather is suggestive of a community’s resiliency and ability to recoup losses.

Recovery efforts for Camp Fire in Butte County are already under way; however, there is great uncertainty surrounding the fate of the evacuees, particularly with regards to housing. In the county at-large, the housing vacancy rate was already less than 2 percent, and local officials are unsure how households will be re-established. Of the population within the Camp Fire perimeter, 14 percent live below the poverty line (more than double that of poverty rates in the Woolsey burn area), and 24 percent rely on either Medicaid or Medicare as their sole form of health insurance.

Many former Paradise residents simply may not be able to afford rebuilding costs.

Butte County has established six shelter sites for the more than 52,000 people displaced by Camp Fire. A recent outbreak of norovirus continues to escalate the health impacts of those displaced. Heading into winter, the situation has all the makings of long-term displacement: a socially vulnerable population with nominal means and no place to go.

With intensifying wildfires and an extending fire season in California, recognizing the make-up of a community is increasingly critical. The dynamic elements that escalate fires make them challenging to pre-determine emergency response and evacuation plans, although systemized neighborhood-based disaster preparedness models could enhance community resilience and save lives.

In the aftermath, however, a clear picture of the impacted population is key to establishing rebuilding efforts that support the most vulnerable.

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