The Roberts Environmental Center


The Risk and Resilience team at the Roberts Environmental Center is analyzing wildfire outcomes for the most at-risk populations. Because wildfires are no longer contained to just one season, communities across California must create meaningful wildfire prevention and response strategies to improve their resilience to these natural disasters. The ability to do so varies across different populations, creating disparities in socioeconomic and health outcomes. Communities in or proximate to high wildfire hazard zones suffer from poor air quality, discriminatory insurance policies, and less economic security due to potentially jeopardized livelihoods. Their educational, and employment prospects may also be limited due to unreliable electrification resulting from cautionary power-shutoffs during high wildfire risk days. As a result, many are confronted with the difficult decision of rebuilding or migrating elsewhere. Some do not have the capital to elect one path over the other, and face near-homelessness or homelessness. Elderly populations, low-income populations, mobile home populations, and unincorporated populations are among the most vulnerable yet least resilient to wildfires. Our team investigated how these communities overlap with high fire risk areas and evaluated which counties are the most and least prepared to respond to wildfires. To focus our research on sub-county demographic outcomes, we conducted a case study on Butte County, California, where one of the deadliest fires in California history, the Camp Fire, devastated the county in 2018. This county was chosen because it not only had an extensive wildfire history, but had significant portions of its population falling within the “most vulnerable” category. After connecting with local Fire Safe Council representatives and community members, we understood how wildfire relief and recovery looked very different for incorporated versus unincorporated territories within the county. While Paradise received considerable policy and media attention, other unincorporated territories that were equally impacted, like Berry Creek and Concow, were left on the fringes and have since struggled to rebuild their communities. Our team wanted to raise awareness about the environmental injustice imbedded within wildfire events not only through data-driven analysis, but by amplifying the voices of community members themselves. In concert, the qualitative and quantitative research we conducted can provide a holistic analysis of California wildfire events in order for policymakers to make evidence-based, equitable policies that enhance the resilience of the most vulnerable communities.








Our team is working with a range of wildfire experts and representatives from Fire-Safe Councils to create a repository of information for people to learn about wildfire outcomes, share best practices, 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.

Check out Today's Live Fire Risk

Planet Labs and the California Forest Observatory (CFO) partnered to create a dynamic California wildfire risk mapping tool

Take Our Survey

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 risk mapping tool.






CDPS within that Butte County, California have 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 area, 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%
  • 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), do not have official forms of governance as do incorporated cities and towns. In lieu of mayors , they are led by local boards, councils, and county commissions. While still legislated under county-level jurisdiction, they have a greater degree of autonomy and face fewer restrictions. This comes with pros and cons, some of which are becoming more prominant . 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 greater freedom, especially over their property. By nature, unincorporated territories have fewer property regulations and zoning restrictions. This means that homeowners have the ability to start farming or homesteading, for example, without worrying about limitations from local government. Wealthier landowners also benefit from private septic systems and trash services, which may be advantageous albeit a source of inequity as poorer residents cannot afford the same quality of services. A final benefit emphasized by many residents is that there has historically been high retention rates within unincorporated regions, creating tight-knit communities spanning multiple generations.  However, incessant wildfires are challenging this permanence, as many community members must grapple with migrating elsewhere to protect their security.  


The informal governance of CDPs, although creating some liberties, 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-based 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. 

Protecting California’s watersheds through wildfire responsibility sharing

Improving Rural Insurance Coverage Through BlockchainThroughout our conversations with Concow residents, insurance was an issue that came up repeatedly. Many Concow residents were not able to ensure their homes, especially those who live off-grid or live in trailer homes. Barriers to insurance for residents include high cost and/or unwillingness from insurance companies to provide or renew insurance plans. According to one resident, Concowans were left to “rely solely on what people can help them with, unless they are lucky enough to have insurance–and most of us up here didn’t have it because the companies didn’t want to insure us because of the fire hazard.” The increasing frequency of wildfires in California will only further raise premiums for those living in high risk areas, but new innovations in insurance technology may help balance out the cost. Smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain have made it possible to create decentralized insurance models like Etherisc and Nexus Mutual, which aim to provide insurance coverage without the need for a centralized insurance company. Decentralized oracles such as Chainlink could allow for a streamlined verification of claims, which could be dispersed automatically and rapidly in the aftermath of natural disasters such as wildfires. Savings from a more efficient model may help reduce the cost for everyday people, and even provide insurance options for those who today’s companies refuse to insure.



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 Eibl

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