Author: Aanvi Jhaveri
Editor: Yazmín Franco

Climate change has disastrous impacts on ecosystems across the planet, negatively impacting human health and disrupting economic, social, and political systems. In California, just as across the world, our poorest populations suffer the worst consequences, despite the world’s wealthiest people producing most of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Wildfires are an unfortunate byproduct of climate change and California’s indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by their increasingly dangerous nature due to long-standing inequities, rural residences, and lack of inclusion in policy making.

Indigenous people endure poverty that results from historical inequities and violence. European groups colonized and dispossessed natives of their land while also committing genocide through deliberate killings and forced assimilation. Estimates show that about 300,000 natives lived in California at the time that Europeans first arrived[1]. After Spanish, Mexican, and American rule, the number of California native peoples declined by 80% as a result of starvation, disease, and intentional extermination[2]. The impacts of these mass atrocities have carried over into our present day, placing our indigenous communities at a disadvantage. The poverty rate for Native Americans in California is about 18%, compared to 8% for white individuals in the state[3]. Across the nation, one in three Native Americans live in poverty with an annual median income of $23,000[4]. Low-income people, in general, have less capacity to adapt to and mitigate climate change, meaning they are disproportionately impacted when a crisis occurs. In California, when wildfires strike, low-income communities have less ability to pay for insurance, rebuild after the fire, or invest in future fire safety[5].

Native Americans are six times more vulnerable to the impacts of wildfires than white people, according to a study conducted by the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy[6]. Similarly, Native Americans across the country live in geographical locations that are more prone to climate crises. A history of forced relocations has led to these indigenous communities living in more rural and remote areas that experience frequent wildfires[7]. Another cause for this disparity in impact is that Native American communities are often not recognized in decision-making processes. The needs of Indigenous people are not addressed in local or federal public policy because there is little representation in government and even less of a desire to understand the suffering that is endured. This neglect in the political arena means Native American perspectives and needs are ignored, perpetuating increased vulnerability in the face of disaster. A notable example is the Karuk Tribe, located along the Klamath River channel in California. The tribe has suffered through frequent, violent wildfires. In 2014, the Happy Camp Complex Fire destroyed 132,000 acres in the area, burning several homes and other buildings[8]. A year prior to that, there was a 650-acre wildfire that completely destroyed a tribal leader’s home[9]. Members of the Karuk Tribe have explained that they do not receive much federal or local help in fighting these wildfires. None of the emergency assistance funding set aside by the State of California is allocated to any of the 106 tribal nations, despite 20% of these natives living in areas prone to wildfires (Du Sault)[10]. Other tribes in California including the North Fork Mono and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band have also suffered through extreme wildfires with little to no assistance from the government. 

Indigenous communities in California face a higher risk of facing wildfires and have lower chances of recovering from them. It is critical for state leadership to take serious steps to improving the lives of Native Americans especially amidst the uncertainties related to climate change and wildfires. Moving forward, local, state, and federal governments should devote adequate resources and funding to indigenous communities. Not doing so means continuing to neglect their suffering.

[1] Clarke (2019)
[2] Ibid
[3] Redbird (2020)
[4] Ibid
[5] Hutson (2018)
[6] Davies (2018)
[7] Ibid
[8] Du Sault (2019)
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid