Smoke rises from Texas wildfires in a desert landscape
Firefighters battle the Smokehouse Creek Fire north of Canadian, Texas, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 (AP Photo/David Erickson)

Several factors will need to be addressed to provide equitable recovery to those living in West Texas who experienced losses from the wildfires sweeping through the area, according to a new analysis from the Urban Institute.

As of March 5, 2024, the fires in the Texas Panhandle have left at least two people dead and burned more than 1.3 million acres of land. Several towns have been evacuated.

The report found that housing will be a major issue for the rural, agricultural-based region.

“As we look to the impact of the fires in Texas, the existing housing stock and kind of the landscape there before the fire, it could really become a challenge as folks look to recovery,” Anne Junod, an environmental social scientist and senior research associate in the Climate and Community program at the Urban Institute, told the Deesmealz. “

There's also issues for renters, she said.

“Renting in a lot of rural areas across the country is a challenge as well, for many of the same reasons: We just don't have as much affordable housing stock …that’s targeted to renters. It's just very tight overall,” she added.

The remoteness and geographic location is another issue to consider when looking at recovery, Junod said.

“Places are just more spread out,” she added. “That can really lead to challenges for administering aid and recovery resources over long distances.”

She said that when people think about reconstruction, it can make it a lot more expensive for folks because there’s a smaller labor market in rural areas and people must travel further distances. “The folks who are working in construction and rehabilitation, they're going to be stressed, and they're going to be charging for their services,” she said.

Additionally, the acres burned will have a significant impact on the farmers and ranchers in the area, Junod said. The analysis said that cultural and translation services will be key to recovery as some in the area don’t speak English proficiently.

According to the analysis, the number of foreign-born residents in Carson County stands at 2.5%, while it’s 4.9% in Hutchinson. It’s higher in Gray County (11.1%) and Hemphill County (16.8%). Those two counties are also where people may struggle to speak English proficiently.

“Leaders in these two counties will need to pay attention to the needs of mixed-status families and people with limited English proficiency,” the analysis said.

Health issues will also play a role in recovery, Junod said. There’s the primary health effects but then there are secondary health impacts, she said, including for people with existing cardiopulmonary conditions.

“We know that rural communities just have higher numbers of folks that are older,” she said. “In rural communities we have higher numbers of folks with disabilities, and rural communities also have higher numbers of folks who are uninsured. And that is a recipe for, obviously, negative health outcomes.”

Junod said there are a lot of existing gaps in rural areas that make them more vulnerable following disasters.

Federal money from FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is disbursed after a disaster, she said, when certain thresholds are met. Forward-looking money that helps prevent climate-related disasters is needed in rural communities, Junod added.

“In rural communities across the country, civic leaders, elected and appointed officials - they're wearing 10 different hats. They're lucky to have a sustainability - forget an office - a person who is doing disaster preparedness and response, doing climate planning, resilience planning,” she said. “And so resources are certainly needed in rural communities. Many rural communities in this way are at a huge disadvantage for not doing that forward-looking planning and preparation.”

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