When the Camp Fire burned through Paradise, California, in November 2018, 85 people lost their lives and more than 18,000 structures were destroyed. Stories from Paradise make clear that the impacts of the fire were not equally borne across the community. Newer homes were more likely to be spared because they were built to more stringent safety codes, while older homes were more likely to burn. The people unable to escape the deadly fire were disproportionately elderly or disabled. And in the fire’s aftermath, many residents have been faced with housing shortages, insurance challenges, and crumbling infrastructure that have kept them in limbo and had an outsized impact on their lives.
Recent research has found that 12 million Americans living in areas where wildfires are common are unable to prepare for or recover from a potential fire. In short, an event like the Camp Fire would be devastating. And African American, Latino, and Native American communities are disproportionately likely to be vulnerable.
As the Camp Fire demonstrated, vulnerable populations are too often left behind when it comes to planning for and recovering from catastrophic wildfires. Federal, state, and local policies, programs, and funding must acknowledge and strive to address this inequity. U.S. disaster response and recovery policies should be commensurate with the scale of the threat and cannot leave behind the most vulnerable communities. Policymakers must ensure that resources are available to all communities—regardless of wealth and power—so that they can plan and take actions to reduce the threat of wildfires to lives and homes and enable recovery if a wildfire does occur.
To that end, this issue brief discusses how to ensure equal access to disaster response and recovery efforts, offering specific policy recommendations that would help ensure that the most vulnerable communities and populations receive the support they need.