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The Case for Letting Malibu Burn

MALIBU, CA – NOVEMBER 09: The Woolsey Fire approaches homes on November 9, 2018 in Malibu, California. About 75,000 homes have been evacuated in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to two fires in the region. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

That wildfires actually benefit wealthy white people due to handsome government payoffs to them has been known for a long time, at least since Mike Davis wrote his groundbreaking essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Looks like nothing has changed since.

Wealthier and whiter neighborhoods stricken by wildfires are more likely to get help to reduce the risk of future fires, new data suggest, the latest evidence that racial and economic inequality leaves some Americans more exposed to the worsening effects of climate change.

The findings, issued Wednesday by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based research group, show that after a wildfire, the federal government is more likely to take steps to reduce the severity of future fires in the same area, but only when the communities nearby are whiter or have higher incomes than average.

“Certain communities are better able to rally government support,” said Matthew Wibbenmeyer, an economist and researcher at Resources for the Future who wrote the paper with Sarah Anderson and Andrew Plantinga, professors at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It can change the amount of risk communities face.”

Wildfires have disproportionately severe effects on poorer households and people of color, who are often more physically exposed, less likely to have insurance and may struggle to rebuild, according to previous research. The latest findings suggest that the government’s decisions after a fire also make a difference, by prioritizing some places over others.

One of the most important ways the federal government can cut wildfire risk is through so-called “fuel treatment” projects: reducing the amount of flammable vegetation in fire-prone areas, using either heavy machinery or by burning it off with a carefully controlled fire, set intentionally and for that purpose. But those projects are expensive, and Congress provides the government with funds to treat just a small fraction of the land at risk from fire each year.

Dr. Wibbenmeyer and his colleagues wanted to find out whether suffering a wildfire would increase a community’s odds of getting a fuel project. They looked at more than 41,000 census blocks that had been within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of a wildfire between 2000 and 2011 and found that most neighborhoods were no more likely to get a fuel project than before.

But in areas that were wealthier, or had a smaller proportion of people of color, the story turned out to be different. Places where all or almost all the residents were white saw their chances of getting a fuel treatment go up by 30 percent. And those odds went up by 40 percent in places where few or no households were below the poverty line.

We see what’s happening with COVID in every other type of “natural disaster.” All these disasters do is exposed and exacerbate previously existing forms of inequality. It goes back to the old joke about tornadoes striking trailer parks, which is actually a joke marginalizing those without enough money to live in homes with foundations that are much more likely to withstand a tornado.

Of course, policy and governments who care can help reduce these inequalities, both before and after disasters. But forget the Republicans for a minute. Who do you think, say, Gavin Newsom cares about more, Malibu residents with huge bank accounts or the poor of Compton? It’s an endemic and systemic issue.

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