Urban Wire Promoting Equitable Wildfire Recovery in Lahaina: Four Lessons for Local Leaders, from Colorado’s Marshall Fire
Andrew Rumbach, Elizabeth Albright, Deserai Crow, Katherine Dickinson, Courtney Welton-Mitchell
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It’s been more than three months since a wildfire devastated Lahaina, a historic Hawaiian town on the island of Maui. Recovery after such disasters can take years to decades and often leaves communities less equitable than before.

For the past two years, we’ve studied three Colorado communities’ recovery after the Marshall Fire—the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. We understand there are key differences between Maui’s experience and Colorado’s—especially the incomprehensible loss of human life in Lahaina. Despite these differences, we believe several findings from our research, which included surveying more than 1,300 survivors and interviews with community leaders, will be useful for Lahaina—and other wildfire-affected communities—in the months and years ahead.

Recovery becomes less equitable over time

Equitable disaster recovery means allocating resources in ways that help all survivors recover regardless of their circumstances. Like all disaster recoveries, households affected by the Marshall Fire have recovered at different rates. Not surprisingly, homeowners with greater financial resources tend to be further along in the rebuilding process.

Before the Marshall Fire, 97 percent of homeowners had insurance compared with 70 percent of renters. And a year after the fire, renters were significantly more likely to be displaced from their home (62 percent) compared with homeowners (40 percent). Renters face other challenges too, with 63 percent of those still living in the same property as before the fire reporting that their landlord had raised their rent.


Despite these clear vulnerabilities, our research suggests that support for equity-focused policies may decline over time. We asked survey respondents whether “as our community rebuilds, we should work to provide more affordable housing in this area.” The number of respondents who agreed fell between survey waves by 9 percentage points, and the drop was especially pronounced among those who suffered the greatest damage, where support for affordable housing fell by 15 points, from 62 percent to 47 percent.

Our recommendation: Disaster recovery is an emotional and uncertain time, and residents who are concerned about their own future may be prone to “zero-sum thinking” that depicts gains for some groups (e.g., residents with lower incomes) as losses for others. Community leaders need to care for, listen to, and reassure all residents that their needs matter. Framing equity-focused recovery policies in terms of whole community benefits and “solidarity dividends” may be an effective strategy for overcoming division.

To that end, state and federal action may be needed to support renters in Maui. In Colorado, voters passed Proposition 123, which created a statewide Housing Affordability Fund. The Colorado General Assembly also passed H.B. 23-1254, which required landlords to remediate affected properties after environmental health events. The legislature also considered but did not pass H.B. 23-1115, repealing a preemption on local rent controls.

Public participation in recovery meetings is not representative

Local governments engage the public to help guide their recovery decisionmaking, yet recent studies show the information collected during public meetings tends to reflect the needs and priorities of older and more affluent residents. After the Marshall Fire, we found 36 percent of survey respondents attended a fire-related meeting, but only 23 percent of households earning less than $75,000 per year did. Similarly, 39 percent of homeowners reported attending a meeting, versus 14 percent of renters. Among the survey respondents who were 55 years old or older, 39 percent attended a meeting, compared with 37 percent of respondents ages 35–54 and just 20 percent of those ages 18–34.


Our recommendation: Local and state officials will seek to balance recovery speed with deliberate and engaged processes to listen and work with the affected community. During this engagement, officials should strive to make public meetings accessible to community members with different needs and abilities (e.g., by providing child care) and should not assume that the people who show up to meetings are perfectly representative. They should always ask, “Who isn’t here? What can we do to hear their voices?”

Physical reminders of the fire can worsen mental health outcomes

Equitable recovery is concerned with the nonphysical impacts of disasters as well. Wildfire exposure can have adverse mental health effects like posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, suicidal thoughts, and increased substance abuse. However, there’s also evidence that social support and social cohesion may mitigate distress among victims who are most vulnerable to these effects.

In our survey, external involuntary reminders of the fire—like seeing the destroyed landscape on a regular basis—were associated with worse mental health outcomes over time. Social support, psychological preparedness, and coping strategies were all associated with better mental outcomes.

Our recommendation: Local leaders should strive for holistic recovery by considering the important mental health consequences of the fire, in the immediate aftermath and over time. Mental health service providers can help affected community members gain a sense of control over their exposure to reminders of the fire and promote opportunities for social support among survivors. They should also consider providing training on psychological preparedness and specific coping strategies to case managers, recovery personnel, educators, and others who consistently interact with people affected by wildfires.

Resilience measures can be controversial

After a disaster, community leaders and recovery professionals often strive to “build back better” by making changes that could reduce future disaster losses and equitably adapt to climate change. Yet, the public can be skeptical of such changes, especially when they introduce additional costs or uncertainty in the rebuilding process.

The three communities affected by the Marshall Fire—Louisville, Superior, and Boulder County—all considered resiliency policies like improved energy codes and wildland-urban interface codes. In Louisville and Superior, these changes became flashpoints of public controversy, especially a new energy code introduced or adopted just weeks before the fire. Our survey and interview data showed that the public, while broadly committed to climate action, were skeptical of requiring fire victims to rebuild to these new standards.


The public was more supportive of requiring homes to be rebuilt using fire-resistant materials and landscaping, but ultimately, Louisville and Superior leaders opted to allow rebuilding without any fire-specific mitigation measures to avoid public backlash.

Our recommendation: Even in areas with high levels of support for climate action, like Maui, uncertainty about the cost of resiliency policies may galvanize public opinion against such changes. Local officials we interviewed stressed that clear communication about rebuilding costs is essential and to reduce uncertainty whenever possible. Local leaders in Maui may also consider incentive programs as an alternative to requirements when promoting resilient rebuilding of individual homes. In Colorado, state and local incentives for rebuilding to higher standards have shown early signs of success, with most households adopting changes voluntarily. Lastly, local decisionmakers should always consider the equity of resiliency policies by asking whether the costs and benefits of such efforts are fairly shared.

This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2220589. The work was also made possible with support from the JPB Environmental Health Fellows program and the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or other supporting organizations.

Research Areas Climate change, disasters, and community resilience
Tags Climate resilient housing Equitable disaster recovery Planning for climate change Climate justice Climate impacts and community resilience Equitable emergency management policy Climate adaptation and resilience Disaster recovery and mitigation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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