Mapping the Growing Risk of Wildfire in Many Rural Areas

Photos and videos of the massive Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fire in north-central New Mexico are a striking reminder of the increasing risks that many parts of rural America face from the combination of a fossil-fuel charged atmosphere, increased intensity of droughts and megafire outbreaks.

 Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Yesterday, a new report from the data-driven First Street Foundation documented the extent of the growing risk. The vast map of the growing threat includes one in six Americans, and includes many areas not previously considered “wildfire country.”

In their impressive reporting on the new wildfire model, (which includes a super-cool “Look Up the Risk in Your Local ZIP code” tool) the Washington Post sums up the problem like this:

Wildfires are becoming more severe and frequent because of human-caused climate change. Record-breaking heat and drought fueled by increasing greenhouse gas emissions are drying out grasslands and forests and lengthening the fire season. And more people are moving to communities built where wildfires are part of the landscape’s natural ecology. They are building homes right next to vegetation, putting themselves in danger.

What’s striking to me are areas included in the wildfire threat zone that are actually outside the fire-intensive Mountain West and Great Plains. I’m talking here about Florida, as well as vast rural areas along the Gulf Coast, the southeastern Atlantic zone and the Missouri/Arkansas Ozarks. All of these regions are likely to face higher temperatures, more frequent and intensive droughts and lots of burnable material (thick trees and brush, for instance).

The WaPo/First Street data also documents the disproportional affect on communities of color. About 44% of Native Americans and nearly 25% Hispanics and Latinos living in the U.S. will live in high-risk regions by 2052. This is certainly not a pretty picture, but there are policies and programs that federal, state, and local public officials could proactively implement to minimize potential future fire damage. That doesn’t mean those policies and programs will be enacted, of course. But then again, that’s why reporting, better information, and scientific analysis like this is so important to share.

Rural Reading List

In addition to pending information and projections of future climate chaos, here’s some additional rural reporting and commentary for you to read this week:

Study Will Look at Informal Work and Social Capital in Rural Communities

This Daily Yonder report on USDA-funded research focuses on informal work, something that doesn’t get a lot of attention but something I, and many people I know, participate regularly in to make our livings in rural areas.

Report: Rural Communities Lack Access to Banking, More Likely to Turn to Predatory Lenders

Important commentary from the Vera Institute on the rural incarceration crisis.

Biden’s Rural Challenge: Turning Flood of Aid into Results on the Ground

Politico’s Ximena Bustillo with a comprehensive report on federal investment in rural infrastructure and economic development projects.

We Need Stable, Climate-Forward Land Use Policies

This report from Palo Alto Online shows how climate-focused land use policies could help steer rural land use in ways that benefit local economies and government funding. And also how local officials often don’t choose that option.

One More Thing: Notes on Rural Journalism

If you’re interested in the future of rural journalism, you probably already read or follow Al Cross from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. If not, I invite you to join the fan club.

Cross recently published an important post, “Rural newspaper editors say division created by Trump divides their communities, and it makes them more careful,” based on a chapter he wrote for a book on the same topic. Cross includes some insights from rural journalists across the country. It’s worth a look.

For instance, Cross’s take on Trump, which he shared with other rural newspaper editors, is thought-provoking:

  • “My take is that Trump makes you be for or against him, and you get defined that way, creating divisions in families, churches, businesses and other organizations. It’s community-corrosive, not community-building.”
  • “People are less interested in local news because Trump has made national news more compelling, and local news media are losing out in the ‘attention economy’ created by the tsunami of online information and their reliance on social media.”

Even as a national reporter focused on rural issues who works in the attention economy, I completely agree with this analysis. Rural newspapers are in a tough spot and face real viability issues. The collapse of many of these rural news outlets (RIP former weekly newspaper, The Adrian Journal, from my hometown in West Missouri) has had serious consequences on local communities and democracies.

At last week’s Rural Assembly, we had a great conversation about these issues and some discussions about how nonprofit and nontraditional news outlets like the Daily Yonder can work together to help fill the rural news and information gap. Hopefully more foundations and funders will join this important conversation, and together us reporters and news outlets can figure out a way to better navigate the difficult media environment we find ourselves operating in these days. And while we’re at it, hopefully we can help support more local, rural-focused reporting and community-focused newspapers too.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.