The Roberts Environmental Center


The Risk and Resilience team at the Roberts Environmental Center is analyzing human migration risk driven by California wildfires. Specifically, we will be working with populations who have been left on the fringes: residents within unincorporated territories known as Census Designated Places (CDPs). These unofficial cities lack formal governance structures like city councils, and are instead legislated under county-level jurisdiction. The counties under which CDPs belong prioritize formal cities for wildfire relief and typically prohibit locally-led, preventative fire practices. As climate change exacerbates wildfire severity and frequency, residents of CDPs face heightened insecurity: limited economic opportunities, discriminatory fire insurance policies, negative health outcomes associated with poor air quality, and a host of other socioeconomic pressures. This may have devastating impacts on local CDP populations – of only around one thousand persons – during and after the wildfire season. As a result, some may be forced to migrate elsewhere temporarily or permanently. When wildfires unfurl, marginalized communities are rendered the most insecure. 

Our team is quantitatively and qualitatively exploring this underserved environmental justice issue. To do so, we are analyzing a variety of environmental and economic indicators derived from open-source census and satellite data. This data, in concert with interviews and policy research, will provide our team insight into potential migratory patterns and risk. Our ultimate goal is to develop a wildfire migration risk mapping tool for inclusive, data-driven policy making that strengthens the resilience of the most vulnerable communities.







Our team is working with representatives from Fire-Safe Councils in CDPs across California to create a hub of information for the community of folks working on wildfire resilience and relief efforts to share best practices, collaborate, and tell their stories. 

Find a Fire Safe Council

Fire Safe Councils are grassroots, volunteer-based organizations that manage wildfire prevention, response, and relief initiatives for their communities.

Take Our Survey

We want to hear about the lived experiences of those impacted by California wildfires. Humans are more than just data points. We value what you have to say so we can collectively drive better wildfire outcomes.

Read Our Report

Our team spent 2020 investigating the data and policies behind California wildfires. Check out our insights!

Understanding california wildfires one map at a time

Our team is using ArcGIS to preliminarily understand how California wildfires impact different communities with the goal of building a wildfire migration risk mapping tool.






CDPS within that Butte County, California have predominantly predominantly older populations. A significant share of residents live in mobile homes due to rising house insurance costs and low median income levels. There are few businesses within the territory, and financing for infrastructure and education initiatives is often diverted to fire relief. This, in addition to poor air quality from wildfire smoke, can undermine the well-being of residents.
  • Unemployment rate 12.1% 12.1%
  • Population 65 years or older 16.5% 16.5%
  • Owner Extreme Housing Burden 20.8% 20.8%
  • Voter turnout 57.2% 57.2%
  • Renter High Housing Burden 62% 62%


Unincorporated territories are at the front lines of California’s wildfire crisis. These underrepresented communities are often overlooked by state and federal governance and face policy inequities in wildfire prevention, response, relief, and insurance in comparison to incorporated cities. In an effort to bring a voice to these communities, the Roberts Environmental Center is developing policy toolkits to demonstrate the impacts of wildfire policies.


Wildfire Prevention

California policies are making it easier for insurers to shy away from covering at-risk populations.

Wildfire Response

In the event of wildfires, some territories are better resourced to efficiently and effectively respond than others

Wildfire Relief

In comparison to formally incorporated territories, a smaller portion of the state and local budget is distributed to unincorporated territories.



What Are Unincorporated Territories?

Unincorporated territories, also known as Census Designated Places (CDPs) differ from municipalities in several distinct ways, perhaps most notably in its form of governance. Unlike cities and towns, unincorporated territories do not have an official forms of local governance, and are instead governed by county commissions, boards, and councils. Under county jurisdiction, unincorporated communities tend to have greater freedom and fewer restrictions, but this comes with pros and cons. The latter are becoming more visible in light of California’s worsening wildfire seasons.


Many residents decide to live in unincorporated communities because it affords them to greater autonomy, especially over their property. By nature, unincorporated territories have fewer property regulations and zoning restrictions. This means that homeowners have the freedom to start farming or homesteading without worrying about limitations from local government. Wealthier landowners also have the advantage of private septic systems and trash services, however this creates an equity issue for poorer residents who cannot afford the same quality of services. A final benefit emphasized by many residents is that there is less migration in and out of unincorporated regions, which creates tight-knit communities spanning over multiple generations.  However, incessant wildfires are challenging this permanence, as many community members must move to protect their security.  


The informal governance of CDPs is accompanied by a variety of challenges as well. Most unincorporated territories don’t have local emergency services – such as police, firefighters, or ambulances- meaning that the wait times to access these services are often longer, and come at a greater cost. Many fire prone regions have built volunteer-led fire stations, but they may be difficult to financially maintain and resource. Resultingly, their smaller capacity can increase the time it takes to respond to wildfires. Because they receive less municipal funding, CDPs may not have school bus services, public infrastructure investment (i.e. parks), or regularly maintained roads. In fire prone regions, there can also be higher insurance premiums for property. 


Cost of emergency services is greater


Volunteer based fire departments and policing systems may face financing and technical challenges


Smaller budget for road and infrastructure maintenance


Higher insurance premiums for property, especially if the home is outside of a fire protection area
Filling in the gaps
Existing literature on fire migration tends to fall in one of two categories: holistic analysis on California’s overall wildfire issues with generalized policy solutions on the state or county level for systematically addressing these issues, or laser-focused case studies on well-known wildfires analyzing the qualitative data produced by these tragedies. These two approaches, however, both miss critical details that are essential for the creation of an accurate picture of California’s wildfire crisis. Large, unrefined analysis can overlook important but less noticeable trends, and make suggestions that are far too broad for individual communities to implement. More specific case studies also overlook smaller, less well-known fire-damaged areas, and miss the human aspect of fire policy that is crucial for acceptance among smaller communities. The marginalized groups of California’s unincorporated areas are underrepresented in current literature, and this trend needs to change.
The Process of Incorporation
Incorporation is a complicated and burdensome process, and is often at the whims of fickle political agendas. Between managing growth and closing budgetary gaps, California’s state senate often swings between providing financial and administrative support to new cities and cutting that very same support months later. Because of this lack of long-term support, only two cities have been incorporated in California in the last ten years, one of which has already disbanded under the financial strain. Incorporation falls under the jurisdiction of California’s Local Agency Formation Commissions, who walk municipalities through the process of gaining the support and resources needed to form their own town, or be annexed by an existing city. We recommend any unincorporated territories looking to gain their own cityhood think twice before pursuing the venture, as a variety of other pathways are available for CDP’s to gain resources and aid from the government in a much more streamlined process.

Much like the path to incorporation, gaining non-profit status for small community organizations like California Fire Safe Councils is difficult, but by no means impossible. These local groups are considered “associations” in IRS tax law, and through their small status can apply using the IRS’s expedited process, officially called Form 1023-EZ, Streamlined Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This process is arduous and requires additional registration including but not limited to applications for an Employer Identification Number, but can pave the way for different funding sources these communities may currently be missing. (I figured we can link to the IRS form or something here)

Although they represent a major voting bloc in California, the segmented and widespread members of unincorporated territories too often see their voices ignored and overlooked. Larger, more densely populated urban areas are much easier to pander to, and tend to draw the most attention at the media level. These rural communities, despite being hit the hardest by California’s increasingly fierce wildlife season, see the aid and support they desperately need wrapped in bureaucratic red tape and held out of their reach. The overwhelming demands of county and state agencies on these CDP’s in order to give them aid are gargantuan and often insurmountable. It will require both an active effort on the population of these rural regions and our elected officials at the governmental level to change the dynamics of wildfire prevention and remediation policies, and that journey starts with a single step in the right direction.


Create circular, thriving economies through biomass generation

Biomass generation facilities create a circular economy that incentivizes fire prevention efforts by utilizing hazardous forest material as inputs for profitable electricity generation. This “fuel-neutral” process makes use of resources that would otherwise be wasted – or worse – contribute to wildfire risk. Biomass generation can provide back-up sources of electricity, stimulate local economies through job creation, and contribute meaningfully to carbon neutrality goals. This green energy project has tremendous potential for minimizing wildfire risk and building community resilience…it just needs financing.

Protecting California’s watersheds through wildfire responsibility sharing

Wildfires can contribute to the flooding, erosion, and pollution of water management facilities. This threatens water quality and quantity for counties throughout California that rely on watersheds within or proximate to fire-prone areas. Wildfire mitigation and ecological recovery is in the best interest of all Californians. At present, many under-resourced unincorporated territories must foot the bill of wildfire prevention and restoration efforts, but their budgets are a fraction of what they should and could be. It’s time to call on counties who benefit from clean, running water thanks to the effort and economic expenditure of these communities to take action. Sharing the same watershed should entail sharing the same financial burden for its protection. 



We value the lived experiences of those afflicted by California wildfires. Hear their stories and share yours

“We were one of the lucky ones. We didn’t actually have to see people burning.”

Resident, Concow (Butte County)

“I know there’s been some people that have gone through 2-3 fires and finally said ‘enough is enough, I’m not doing this again’, and they’ve moved. I know several people that have moved out of state. But the majority as far as the rural communities have come back–whether they are in a tent, their car, a trailer, or found a house to buy or something, they have. It’s home. We have generations of families up here.”

Resident, Concow (Butte County)

“Everyone says this initially, ‘oh we’re going to go back and we’re going to rebuild and we’re going to do this’. Then time sets in and you start going ‘oh maybe I’m not going to do that after all”

Former resident & community leader, Concow (Butte County)

“There are many variations of passages of Lorem Ipsum available, but the majority have suffered alteration by injected humour.”

Fire Safe Council Community Organizer, Berry Creek (Butte County)


Sami Murphy

Project Manager

Marissa Talcott

Policy Team

Ben Eible

Development Team

Wesley Dale

Data Team

Elton Smole

Development Team

Lia Harel

Development Team

Emma Barker

Data Team

Miller McCraw

Policy Team

 to share your story, get involved, or  learn more