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Report Spotlights The Socioeconomics Of Wildfire Risk

A plane is flying over part of the Richard Spring Fire while dropping retardant. The sky is filled with smoke, casting a sepia tone over the image. There are several small structures surrounded by trees toward the bottom of the composition.
Courtesy of Phil Millett
A retardant drop over the Richard Spring Fire in Montana in August of 2021.

A new report on wildfire risk uses demographic data to highlight counties around the West that may be especially vulnerable.

The nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics analyzed each county’s susceptibility to fire and smoke, but also socioeconomic information about residents, including age, race, income level, and English proficiency. 

Headwaters Associate Director Kelly Pohl says those factors can add to the impact of wildfires, which are becoming more severe and frequent due to climate change.

“Wildfire smoke and environmental stress can exacerbate existing medical conditions, which are more common among the elderly, the disabled and people living in poverty,” Pohl said.

For example, Owyhee County, Idaho, has a disproportionately high share of residents with disabilities, and in Park County, Colo., a fifth of the population is older than 65.

The report’s interactive map allows users to filter the data by wildfire risk and demographic characteristics, and it generates downloadable risk profiles for each county.

Overall, the report found that more than half of the 37 million residents living in the most fire-prone areas are people of color, who, as the report notes, “tend to be particularly vulnerable to disasters due in part to cultural and institutional barriers.”

Pohl said the findings can give local leaders a better sense of risk factors and help federal officials direct money to preparedness, mitigation and recovery.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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