These demographic maps are identifying environmental unfairness, engaging communities, and beginning to spur the redesign of government programs to target limited government resources where they can have the greatest impact.
In a November 2020 article published on the Headwaters Economics website outlining the increased destructiveness of wildfires, Barrett wrote “Reporting the number of structures and lives lost to wildfire contextualizes the profound impacts felt by communities.”
A new nationwide tool allows users to examine how vulnerable their communities are to wildfires.
Headwaters Economics, an independent research group in Bozeman, Mont., created the tool with the Forest Service. The report uses data from the Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk to Communities program, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Geological Survey. All are continually updated.
Rasker said Federal Reserve research is highly revered, so any conclusions it makes could help Western communities understand just how much is at stake when it comes to climate change. He said Western states need to consider things like insurance and their communities’ ability to get bonds.
“Whether it’s a preventative project, like something to deal with flooding, or whether it’s parks and open space, or building a new school, is climate change going to affect the bonding capacity of municipalities?” Rasker asked. “I think it will.”
Zoom towns are scattered across the United States, but the most popular ones seem to be small- to mid-sized, amenity-rich communities, with plenty of public land nearby, from Bend, Oregon, to Flagstaff, Arizona, along with a whole bunch of best-place-to-live-list towns. In most cases, their real estate markets were already overheated. But they exploded in the wake of the pandemic’s first wave, driving home prices to astronomical levels and putting homeownership even further out of reach for the typical working-class person.
For decades, Dr. Barrett said, most of the people moving into fire-prone areas were white and well-off. But rising home costs in cities and suburbs are increasingly pushing lower-income and minority families into those areas, she said, and all levels of government need to change their fire policies to reflect that growing economic and racial diversity.
Research by Headwaters Economics shows we’ve been measuring rural growth wrong. As rural counties add population, they can grow out of their rural category and take their economic growth with them. “Rural America is reported as declining in part because we no longer count as Rural those counties that grew into a Metro classification. We are measuring those counties that stay Rural which, by definition, have not grown,” stated the report.
2020 was the worst year ever for wildfires in the United States. In California alone, more than 4 million acres burned, dozens died and thousands of structures were destroyed. And it’s increasingly clear that we’re going to have to figure out how to live with it. Kimiko Barrett is a research and policy analyst for Headwaters Economics, a think tank based in Bozeman, Montana. She said we need to rethink how we build houses, where we build them and even what they look like.
A study by Headwaters Economics found fire-resistant homes can be cheaper than traditional homes, thanks in large part to using more affordable fiber-cement siding.
Voluntary measures by the homeowner just aren’t going to work,” says Barrett, the policy analyst at Headwaters Economics. “One homeowner is going to do everything right, and their neighbor is going to decide not to do anything. And therefore, they’re still at risk.
According to research by the Montana-based land-management firm Headwaters Economics and IBHS, the cost of using fire-resistant building materials is only slightly more expensive—and sometimes less expensive—than using standard materials.
One indicator of outdoor recreation activity, National Park Service visitation numbers, are all over the map, said Megan Lawson, who studies rural economies for Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana.
“Several of them actually had higher visitation in August than they did in the previous year,” Lawson said, “which I think is doubly remarkable because they’ve eliminated most of their international visitors.”
In such firestorms, many buildings are doomed by embers, which may be lofted for hundreds of yards then fall like snowflakes. These burning bits of debris find ways to penetrate interiors, which are typically filled with furniture, rugs, paneling and other volatile materials.
“Embers will exploit any vulnerability in a home — and once they get inside and ignite, it is very unlikely to survive,” said Kelly Pohl, a researcher at Headwaters Economics.
“All of this adds up to a situation where communities of color stand to be represented even less in the 2020 Census than they have been historically. This would be a monumental step backwards.”
Here to talk about WUIs, building materials, fire prevention and more is Kimiko Barrett. She’s a wildfire researcher at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics. She’ll help us do the numbers on communities at risk and guide us through the “wildfire paradox” that protects homes … until it doesn’t.
“When you look at when a wildfire does occur, it’s the federal government that comes in and pays for that suppression cost. So there’s this inverse fiscal incentive on what is happening at that local scale versus who’s actually paying for the wildfire costs.”
“For a century and more now we’ve been intentionally excluding wildfires from the landscape in the effort to protect homes and communities,” Barrett says. “And in doing so we are aggravating the problem into the future.”
Homeowners and contractors often assume that fire-resistant buildings are more expensive, although Headwaters Economics reckons that, for newly built houses, the costs can be comparable. And fire-safe homes often come with secondary advantages, such as greater energy efficiency, which make them cheaper over time.
“Until it happens in your own backyard, you feel it’s very tangential,” said Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire researcher at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group. “You don’t think of wildfire risk as something that will happen to you, until it does.”
Planning is still underway to decarbonize Montana’s electricity sector by 2035 and to decarbonize Montana’s economy by 2050, he said.
“A lot of this needs to be done in recognition of the fact that [the energy transition] is already happening,” said Haggerty, noting that the task force is diverse, including everyone from conservationists to energy officials.