The data

Headwaters Economics used Tableau to create two powerful dashboards to visualize the inequitable realities of wildfire risk and help decision makers find solutions. By analyzing complex wildfire datasets from the U.S. Forest Service, the team has been able to determine who is most vulnerable to wildfire, and why. With the dashboards, it’s possible for policymakers, community leaders, and risk managers to understand who is at risk, and create the appropriate policy responses needed to protect communities.

The visualization

There are two dashboards: national, and state-level. Kelly recommends beginning with the national dashboard. “First, filter by wildfire risk. The default is to see all levels of risk. To discover the areas with the higher levels of risk, click on the color gradation bar to filter the map to only show places with medium or more than medium-high wildfire risk. At the top of the map, you’ll see that counties are filtered to reveal that level of risk. There’s also a count of the counties, so you can see right away how many places meet that criteria. At the bottom of the map, there’s a tally of the different social and economic variables. You can also apply additional demographic filters. 

The historical context

Many leaders don't actually have a good sense of where exposure to wildfire intersects social and economic vulnerability. Headwaters’ goal was to provide access to that information so that policymakers, especially at the national and state levels, could understand not only where wildfire risk is high, but where people may need extra support in preparing for and recovering from wildfire. 

The current implications

Human, political, and social factors have contributed to the prevalence of wildfire risk, and the risk is made more extreme by climate change. Fire seasons are longer, vegetation is drier, and higher average temperatures mean that snow cover dissipates sooner. In the U.S., wildfire was once a seasonal and regional issue; today, wildfire happens in most every region, on a nearly year-around basis. The data is sobering. In the counties with the highest wildfire risk there are more than: 37 million total people 19 million people of color and Hispanics 5.7 million people over 65 4.4 million with disabilities 2.5 million people with difficulty speaking English 880,000 families in poverty Addressing a problem of this scale will require coordinated effort across the federal, state, and local levels.

For more on this dashboard, the analysis, and Headwaters Economics, check out this blog post.

Data Deep-Dive

Key takeaways to guide analysis

Vulnerable populations at highest risk

People in vulnerable populations—including people of color, people living in poverty, people who are disabled, elderly people, and those with language barriers—suffer disproportionate exposure to catastrophic loss because they are the least able to absorb, recover, and reduce risk.

More than 30% of U.S. homes in fire-prone areas

Nearly one-third of American homes are in fire-prone areas—and, in many of these places, there are a lack of building codes and regulations that help ensure development is happening with wildfire risk in mind.

Data is a catalyst for change

The dashboards are a powerful illustration of how data can be used to surface inequities, help decision makers identify and understand their most vulnerable communities, and ultimately be a catalyst for change.