Washington, DC—The top ten percent most-valuable homes in the western United States are 70 percent more likely to be in high wildfire hazard areas than median-value properties, measured by county, according to a new study published today in Environmental Research Letters

Researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) used granular spatial data to study residential properties in the western United States and their relative risk for wildfire exposure. The team studied properties’ location, value, community characteristics, and proximity to previous wildfires.

Median home values and number of homes in high wildfire hazard areas. 140 sq. km hexagonal grid cells are colored according to the median property value in high wildfire hazard areas in the cell. Grid cell height is based on the number of properties in high fire hazard areas in each cell. Grid cells are omitted from the map if there are no high wildfire hazard properties within the cell. Bar charts on the right plot the number of grid cells in each property value decile category on the map (upper bar chart) and the average number of properties per grid cell by property value decile. Most of the overall area facing high wildfire hazard comprises areas with relatively low property values (upper bar chart); nevertheless, property values are higher than average in high wildfire hazard areas because high property value high fire hazard areas are relatively high density (lower bar chart).

The study shows that hazard and impact from recent wildfires are disproportionately borne by high-income, white, and elderly communities, and by owners of high-value properties. However, the research also reveals disproportionate exposure to wildfire hazard among the lowest-value homes in the western United States, and among Native American communities.

Exposure to wildfire hazard often goes hand-in-hand with access to benefits like beautiful views, recreational opportunities, and proximity to nature. As a result, exposure to wildfires differs from other anthropogenic hazards such as pollution or waste facilities, which overwhelmingly affect vulnerable communities.

In recent years, the western United States has seen a dramatic increase in wildfires because of climate change and past forest and fire management practices. Policymakers are weighing options for how to distribute the costs of wildfire suppression and mitigation across households in both low- and high-hazard areas.

“In spite of increased attention to the distribution of environmental and climate-related risks across socioeconomic groups, and its relevance to current wildfire-related policy debates, the distribution of wildfire hazard was previously not well understood,” comments RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer, lead author of the paper.

“Wildfire mitigation policies that deliver financial assistance to high-hazard areas could be subsidizing wealthy households. However, high wildfire hazard areas are quite heterogeneous, so addressing concerns associated with costs of increasing wildfire hazard may call for a geographically targeted approach focused on reducing the burden for the most vulnerable communities,” adds coauthor Molly Robertson, an RFF research associate.

For more, read the open-access paper, “The Distributional Incidence of Wildfire Hazard in the Western United States,” by RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer and Research Associate Molly Robertson in the journal Environmental Research Letters