Poverty is Burning – California Fires

Across cultures and geographic locations, natural disasters have affected low-income families to a greater degree than affluent people – and the California fires are no different. Impoverished families are more vulnerable to these blazes and the devastating effects on their lives.

A 2018 study conducted on more than 70,000 census tracts in the United States found that:

“When it comes to disasters, differences in vulnerability can affect the magnitude and duration of impacts like the loss of property, livelihoods, or services.”

The problem isn’t so much the fires themselves but the socioeconomic circumstances that, for some groups of people, disproportionately foster the long-lasting effects of these catastrophes.

Preventative measures, such as tree-trimming, non-combustible attachments, hardscape, and vegetation management, can spell the difference between an under-burn and a wildfire, but which is often unaffordable. While people who rent their homes lack access to the federal funds homeowners can use to rebuild following the destruction. Not only are poor families unprepared for wildfires, they also lack the resources to recover from a fire. So when it comes to the California fires, low-income families face obstacles both before and after the catastrophe.

California Wildfires – Racial and Cultural Barriers

Statistics show that race plays a role in wildfire vulnerability and the ability to recover. For example, Northern California and Santa Barbara authorities have had difficulty disseminating Spanish evacuation information to Hispanic people living in fire-engulfed areas. Incidentally, migrant workers in Napa Valley are particularly prone to joblessness because so many vineyards have been destroyed by wildfire, an issue aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. And many of these people don’t have access to federal aid meant to help people recoup losses after the disaster, even if they pay taxes.

Native Americans in the Western US are also especially vulnerable, in part because they’ve been historically forced to live on reservations. However, in the spring of 2022, Governor Newsom’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force announced it would partner with Native American tribes to re-establish the cultural practice of controlled burning. These small fires, often conducted ceremonially, are meant to protect nature holistically by burning excess debris. 

For some families in poverty, especially African American families, CA fires highlight the lack of access to health care, which, subsequent to smoke inhalation, could be deadly. Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine and environmental health sciences at UCSF and UC Berkeley, says smoke from wildfires is:

“likely to differentially impact kids in [low-income, predominantly Black] neighborhoods.”

“Native American fire practitioners hold a training session in Chico, California, to teach community members how to conduct cultural burnings.” – CNN

Ta’Kira Dannette Byrd, 11, for example, (KQED) lives in an area of Vallejo, California, where there’s often, not only the soot from vegetation and grass fires, but also drift-smoke from active wildfires, and other blazes in nearby towns like Hercules – endangering residents. She had a severe asthma attack at age five because of such infernos raging near her home. And throughout the years, she has periodically run out of meds because of problems with her Medi-Cal program.

What We Can Do

Steps can be taken to mitigate the damage left behind the California fires, which destroy not only homes and businesses, but also lives.

  • *When wildfires start, we must first send help to the most disadvantaged areas, where our poorest, most vulnerable families live. 
  • *We need to ensure people have access to fire prevention education and preventative measures they can understand and afford.
  • *We must tear down barriers poor families face when it comes to aid and assistance so they have the chance to recover from a wildfire.

Written by: Sarah Sharp