As wildfires rage through California again this fall, the disparity in media coverage is affecting relief efforts for residents of color. Media coverage and public pressure can affect which communities are prioritized for relief, with attention often focusing on more affluent white areas. But in fact, research has shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental disasters due to socioeconomic factors, structural racism in housing practices, and citizenship status (UW News). Wildfires are no exception. As covered previously, mainstream conservation practices are rooted in colonialism and white supremacy. Consequently, they’re ill-equipped to address the particular needs of residents most at risk (Anti-Racism Daily). Undocumented farmworkers are disproportionately affected by wildfires, and Indigenous people live on land that is, on average, six times more prone to wildfires than others (UW News). However, people of color are vastly underrepresented in coverage of environmental disasters (Louisiana Weekly). While representation in the media has been under scrutiny as of late, the exclusion of these narratives could be directly affecting the distribution of aid. For these already vulnerable communities, a lack of media attention further increases their capacity to recover (UW News). Due to the lack of federal resources, on the ground community-led efforts are attempting to fill in the gap (OPB).
Research demonstrates that wealthier, white areas are more likely to receive aid, though predominantly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are at 50% greater risk of wildfires (UW News). Matthew Wibbenmeyer, an economist and researcher at Resources for the Future says, “certain communities are more able to rally government support” (NYTimes). With organized and widely available resources, affluent, suburban communities are receiving the brunt of wildfire relief and media attention. The communities most at risk lack basic necessities like health insurance and vehicle access. These resources would make it more feasible to recover from environmental disasters such as wildfires. For instance, federal fuel treatment projects are largely implemented in predominantly white communities whose residents were over the poverty line. These projects reduce the amount of flammable vegetation in the area, drastically reducing the start and spread of wildfires. In the absence of fuel treatment programs, government assistance advises residents to invest in prohibitively expensive air conditioning or air purifying units, placing a heavy burden on individuals to compensate for structural shortcomings.
Alternatively, within some Indigenous communities affected by wildfires, there is a practice known as tribal burning. This can often mitigate the risk of wildfires. For years, it had been banned in California. But, as new policy seeks to form relationships with Indigenous communities, research is being done to show how the cultural practice can help to not only reduce the risk of wildfire but foster new growth in the affected areas (The Nature Conservancy). It is not enough for policy to allow the practice of tribal burning though, as Beth Rose Middleton Manning, a professor of Native American studies, observes, “I think it’s really important that we don’t think about traditional burning as: what information can we learn from native people and then exclude people and move on with non-natives managing the land”. She hopes to see indigenous leaders at the forefront of any tribal burning practice (NPR).
Similarly, much of the organized relief work has fallen on the shoulders of local organizers and BIPOC-led relief efforts. Activists such as Dagoberto Morales identified that one of the best ways to provide wildfire relief is to double down on community building. Through his organization Unete Center for Farm Workers and Immigrant Advocacy, he believes in long-term disaster relief through empowerment (OPB, Unete). While community members have organized their own aid networks, attention to those efforts alone would go a long way to furthering their cause. As effective as on-the-ground aid efforts can be, many residents are still vastly reliant on federal aid which has been diverted due to a lack of updated policies and understanding. News and media coverage for marginalized communities most at risk from wildfires could generate help for the grassroots organizations but also change misconceptions that hinder federal aid.