An exploratory spatial analysis of social vulnerability and smoke plum dispersion in the U.S
This study explores the spatial association between social vulnerability and smoke plume dispersion at the census block group level for the 13 southern states in the USDA Forest Service’s Region 8. Using environmental justice as a conceptual basis, we use Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis to identify clusters or “hot spots” for the incidence of both higher than average socially marginal populations and plume dispersion. The larger health disparities and environmental justice literature suggests that lower income and minority populations in the U.S. face greater exposure than middle/upper income, non-minority populations to environmental pollutants; however, we are aware of only a few studies examining this relationship in the context of population exposure to wildfires or prescribed fires in the U.S. South, despite the high occurrence of wildfires in the region. Analyses were conducted across five ecoregions in the South and for winter and spring/summer seasons. Results by ecoregion show significant spatial clustering of high social vulnerability block groups in the vicinity of block groups with a high number of smoke plumes (i.e., “hot spots”). Overall, however, socially vulnerable communities are not exposed to more smoke than non-socially vulnerable communities. Data limitations and suggestions for further research are discussed.