More than half of US properties are at least some risk from wildfires

More than half of all homes, 56 percent, in the contiguous 48 states will be at least some risk from wildfires in the coming decades, according to a first-of-its-kind report published today by the nonprofit research organization First Street Foundation.

First Street gave each address in the continental US a rating between one and ten, with one representing almost no risk and 10 representing a 36 percent or greater chance that a property could be caught in a wildfire sometime in the next three decades. More than 20 million properties in the continental US are threatened by at least a “moderate” wildfire risk. Those homes have up to a 6 percent chance of being on fire at some point over a 30-year period, the typical time frame for a mortgage.

Even a 1 percent chance of getting into a wildfire is worth taking seriously. In comparison, the federal government considers an area with a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year a “Special Flood Hazard Area” on maps used to determine flood insurance rates. But unlike floods, The New York Times reports, there is as yet no comprehensive property-level data on wildfire risk.

You can now type an address into First Street’s online search to see the organization’s fire risk rating for that property (you’ll also find a First Street flood risk rating). The information will also be included in Realtor.com.

To assess the risk of each property, First Street built a peer-reviewed model using government data on available fuels (dry vegetation) and weather patterns. It was then able to simulate more than 100 million wildfires to see what properties they might threaten.

Using First Street’s data, The Washington Post reports that one in six Americans now lives in a place with a “significant” wildfire risk.

Wildfire seasons have intensified as climate change makes the western US hotter and drier. The past century of firefighting has also made fires more devastating when they break out, as suppression tactics have allowed dry vegetation to rise to dangerous heights instead of letting them burn down in smaller, sporadic fires. In addition, residents have moved deeper into vulnerable locations where urban development and fire-prone ecosystems converge, especially in states with rising home prices like California. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the costs associated with wildfires have increased nearly tenfold from $8.5 billion between 2012 and 2016 to $79.8 billion between 2018 and 2021.

Of the properties with wildfire risk, annual wildfire probability in 30 years.
Image: First Street Foundation

Things are only going to get riskier as climate change continues to warm the planet, The Washington Post and First Street both warn. In 30 years, about one in five Americans will live in high-risk areas.

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