Urban Wire The Texas Panhandle Wildfires and Four Keys for Equitable Recovery
Andrew Rumbach, Anne N. Junod, Will Curran-Groome, Sara McTarnaghan, Oriya Cohen, Amy Rogin
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Wildfires continue to burn across the Texas panhandle this week, including the Smokehouse Creek Fire—the largest fire in state history and among the largest on record in the United States. As of March 5, the fires have caused at least two deaths, burned more than 1.3 million acres of land, and prompted numerous evacuation orders from towns and facilities across the rural agricultural region.

It will be some time before the extent of the fires’ damage is known, but early reports indicate that they’ve destroyed 400 to 500 homes and structures, killed thousands of head of cattle, and caused service and infrastructure disruptions in dozens of towns and communities. While firefighters work to contain the blaze, emergency managers and community leaders have begun to shift from disaster response to recovery.

To help assess the critical housing, aid, health, and economic recovery challenges facing the region, our team analyzed data from the US Census Bureau and other sources and reflected on evidence from past disasters and identified four key issues that may need to be addressed as part of an equitable recovery.

1. Housing losses will be felt acutely given the rurality of the region

The Texas wildfires are concentrated in a remote rural region northeast of Amarillo—the average population of the five most-affected counties is 10,361, compared with the statewide average of 115,131. Like other rural areas, the affected counties already experience challenges around housing availability, quality, and affordability, worsened by higher construction costs, slower development activity, and significant declines in affordable rental housing units in recent years.

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Housing in rural areas tends to be older, and decades of stagnant rural housing prices have put traditional financing mechanisms out of reach for many homeowners. Also, a substantial share of the region’s population are renters, who often struggle to access recovery resources and have the highest likelihood of displacement after disasters. Within the region, the highest share of renter households are in Gray (29.6 percent), Hemphill (26.6 percent), and Hutchinson (18.1 percent) Counties. With the loss or damage to hundreds of properties, the Texas wildfires will likely worsen a rural housing crunch across the region for both owners and renters.

Hard-hit communities like Fritch, Canadian, and Stinnett may face housing recovery challenges because of their smaller relative size and limited capacity to plan, permit, and build new units— an issue often observed in disaster-affected small towns and rural communities. In Hutchinson County, just 4.6 percent of the housing stock has been built since 2010. Cleaning up and rebuilding destroyed housing and infrastructure will take several years under the best of circumstances, and transitional housing options may also be scarce.

Housing prices also tend to increase after disasters because of the sudden reduction in supply and the relative value of new and repaired housing units, which households with lower incomes feel most acutely. Already, a significant share of households in Gray (29.1 percent) and Hutchinson (21.5 percent) Counties spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Not surprisingly, these counties also have the area’s lowest average household incomes and highest levels of poverty.

The Urban Institute’s Emergency Rental Assistance Priority (ERAP) Index shows that several census tracts in the towns of Borger and Pampa are in the top quartile of those at risk of eviction and homelessness in the state, meaning housing precarity before the fires was already high. Although housing stressors will be felt throughout the region, the ERAP tool may be helpful for aid organizations that are looking to target housing assistance in areas with the greatest need.

2. Households may struggle to access aid because of isolation and language barriers

Disaster aid, which is vital for short- and long-term recovery after disasters, can be especially challenging to administer in rural regions, where households typically receive less aid (PDF) overall and from fewer sources than households in urban areas. More than 90 percent of people in the counties most affected by the wildfires use a vehicle to go to work and virtually none use public transportation, which could pose a challenge for fire survivors who lack access to the private transportation necessary to get to disaster recovery centers and aid distribution sites.

Aid resources to overcome language and cultural barriers, such as professional translation services, will also be key to the recovery process. Past research (PDF) has consistently shown that these barriers can lead to an inequitable distribution of recovery resources. While the number of foreign-born residents is relatively low in Carson (2.5 percent) and Hutchinson (4.9 percent) Counties, it’s substantially higher in Gray (11.1 percent) and Hemphill (16.8 percent) Counties. These two counties also have large shares of people who speak English “less than very well” (Gray 8.1 percent and Hemphill 11.7 percent). Leaders in these two counties will need to pay attention to the needs of mixed-status families and people with limited English proficiency.

3. Households could face significant health burdens

Exposure to wildfires and wildfire smoke can cause numerous negative health effects, and the risks are highest for people with cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions, older people, people with disabilities, people with lower incomes, and outdoor workers. In the most affected counties, people tend to be older and at least 1 in 10 live with a disability. The region’s agricultural economy also relies on outdoor workers. For the 14 to 29 percent of the population that doesn’t have health insurance, the risks of adverse health effects will be even higher.

The health risks from wildfire smoke can occur over both the short and long term, and human services and health care providers should consider opportunities to target and tailor services and resources to the most vulnerable groups.

Many Households in the Affected Region Have Greater Health Risks

County65 and olderWith a disabilityWithout health insurance
Carson21.0%9.8%14.0%
Gray16.1%13.3%28.9%
Hemphill18.8%18.9%25.5%
Hutchinson17.2%16.6%22.2%
Roberts14.1%12.0%18.1%

Source: US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 5-year estimates 2018–22.

4. Economic recovery may be challenging

Though the economic effects of the fires are still unfolding, it’s clear they have dealt a devastating blow to farming and ranching— both important industries in the region. The Bureau of Economic Analysis’s data show that in 2022, the region had 2,783 people who were farm proprietors (including ranchers) or worked in a full- or part-time job on a farm or ranch.

Before the fire, the region’s unemployment rate sat below 5 percent in all the affected counties. Yet 17 percent of households in Gray County reported living below the federal poverty line, compared with 12.9 percent of Texans overall. In the region’s largest towns, like Borger and Pampa, some census tracts have poverty rates double the statewide average. As the fallout of the disaster unfolds, including potential farm and ranch closures and layoffs, these households may be especially vulnerable to economic shocks and in need of aid.

Prioritizing an inclusive and resilient recovery

Climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity, and size of wildfires by creating warmer, drier weather that escalates fire risk and lengthens fire seasons. Before this week’s fires, the panhandle was experiencing prolonged and widespread drought, which exacerbated unseasonably hot and dry conditions that fueled the fire’s spread.

As the Texas wildfires continue to burn, the effects on housing availability, access to aid, resident health, and the local economy will continue to unfold. Local and state planners, emergency managers, and aid organizations can monitor these critical recovery issues to develop targeted supports and plan for equitable recovery.

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Research Areas Climate change, disasters, and community resilience
Tags Climate impacts and community resilience Equitable disaster recovery Equitable emergency management policy Climate resilient housing
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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