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America Is on Fire, and It’s an Inequality Nightmare

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 9/15/2020 Kelly Weill
a tractor in front of a fence: Josh Edelson/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Josh Edelson/Getty

Asthma complications. No home insurance. Administrative nightmares. 

The wildfires raging along America’s West Coast could prove especially catastrophic to families experiencing poverty. As entire towns evacuated from wildfires in southern Oregon this week, many families launched GoFundMe pages for their lost homes, with some explaining that they had no insurance, and had lost everything in the blaze. 

In a year that has already driven a coronavirus-shaped wedge between classes, the fire recovery efforts stand to widen the gap between the well-off—who still face the unenviable task of rebuilding—and everyone else.

“There are huge disparities in who has the wealth and the assets, not only to rebuild, but to evacuate in the first place,” Audrey Mechling, a policy fellow at the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a think tank focused on low- and medium-income residents of the state, told The Daily Beast.

Many of the online fundraisers in ravaged Oregon towns like Phoenix and Talent came from families with children, who said they’d escaped with little more than they could carry in their arms. More than half the families in the Phoenix-Talent school district have lost their homes or been temporarily displaced, the district’s superintendent said this week.

Some of Oregon’s hardest-hit regions are rural or farming communities, where workers are often already cash-strapped, according to Leanne Giordono, a professor at Oregon State University who studies poverty and community responses to natural disasters. The fires hit doubly hard there.

“The fires are going on in rural areas that are losing the natural resources they’ve been dependent on,” Giordono said.

Phoenix and Talent boast large agricultural industries—jobs that can’t go remote in a disaster, as this year’s COVID-19 pandemic made clear.

“Those families who are not only having to evacuate right now, but are having to evacuate and lose their source of income, are at a huge disadvantage,” Mechling said.

The fires that hit those cities were particularly catastrophic to some trailer home communities, where many farm workers and their families live, as The Washington Post reported. In addition to being less likely to have insurance on their homes, low-income communities might be less able to claim government relief even when it’s offered. Although it’s unclear whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will tap relief funds for wildfire survivors, Giordono said higher-income communities have historically been better at securing those funds. 

There’s also the matter of undocumented workers, like some who work on southern Oregon farms, being unable to claim assistance. Some of those workers have worked outside in respirator masks through the pandemic and severe heat waves because their legal status made it impossible for them to collect unemployment even before the fires, Mechling noted.

“That's the position that a lot of these families are in because they haven't been able to access the same safety net that other Oregonians can access, that folks who have legal status can access, they don't have the option of not working,” she said. “That’s the group that stands out to me as being incredibly hard-hit by these intersecting crises.”

Even low-income communities outside the fires’ immediate reach might suffer their ill effects more than wealthier people. The fires have caused dangerously poor air quality, exacerbating asthma symptoms, which disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. The months after a series of disastrous California fires in 2018 saw a spike in hospitalizations for asthma-related issues, as Reveal reported that year. Giordono warned that homeless people and other vulnerable communities might see increased health problems from this year’s smoke, even if they did not personally experience the fires up close.

For the hardest-hit locales, the fires can be a self-fulfilling economic prophecy.  A 2017 paper found that natural disasters upped the poverty rates in affected areas, in part because wealthier residents moved somewhere else.

Phoenix Mayor Chris Luz nodded at the problem in an interview with the Post, in which he revealed that up to 50 local businesses and the city’s only bank had burned down.

“Our tax base is going to be diminished,” Luz told the paper. “We’re not going to survive without help.”

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