For more than 50 years, anyone buying or renting a house could check how vulnerable it was to flooding. But for the risk of forest fire, the owners were mostly in the dark.
Even with thousands of homes destroyed each year by wildfires, most people who move receive little or no information on the risk they take.
Today, a non-profit research group publishes a one-of-a-kind tool for homeowners. Produced by the First Street Foundation, the assessment tool shows the wildfire risk for properties in the lower 48 states and shows how that risk will change as the climate warms. The information will be posted on Realtor.com, later expanding to other real estate sites.
The information fills a void left by the government. Only a handful of states have mapped the communities most at risk from wildfires. Federal cards of the US Forest Service are not intended for use for individual properties.
Knowledge of wildfire risk does not necessarily deter buyers, especially when housing is scarce. But wildfire experts say there is many steps homeowners can still take to make their homes safer, such as trimming flammable vegetation and using fire-resistant building materials.
“We won’t be able to stop all wildfires,” says Kelly Pohl, associate director of Headwaters Economics, a land use think tank. “We have a lot of work to do and understanding where a danger is, in the landscape and in individual homes, is the first step.”
In a bidding war, it’s easy to forget
In 1991, Tom Grossman had a difficult mission. The Oakland Hills firestorm hit the Bay Area, destroying more than 3,000 homes. Grossman’s search and rescue team was called in to systematically comb through the area, looking for human remains.
“It looked like a war zone,” Grossmans says. “It’s flattened. Everything is burned. Everything you’re used to is destroyed.”
In the rubble, his team found people who did not survive. Twenty-five people died in the blaze, many of whom were trying to escape through narrow, winding roads.
More than two decades later, Grossman was hunting for a new home in the hills of Oakland, navigating the Bay Area’s hyper-competitive housing market. After bidding on several and losing, he and his wife finally closed on a house. It sits on a tree-covered hill, just a few miles from where the Oakland Fire burned. But that didn’t cross Grossman’s mind.
“We absolutely haven’t made that connection,” he says. “We were just going: another scary bidding war!”
Like many other landlords and tenants across the country, Grossman received little information about the dangers of wildfires in the process of deciding where to move. California is one of the few states requiring disclosure of wildfire risk during a home sale, but the one-page form easily goes unnoticed in the piles of paperwork homebuyers have to sift through.
“It’s just pages and pages and pages of legalese and boring minutiae,” Grossman says. “And what’s important gets lost in the blur.”
Wildfire risk ratings, now alongside remodeled kitchen photos
The First Street Foundation set out to map wildfire risk after it was published similar house flood ratings, which currently appear on Redfin and Realtor.com. the wildfire ratingsranked from one to 10, take into account climate change, which is fueling the extreme heat and dry conditions that have helped create record wildfires.
“The results are going to be surprising to some people, to say the least,” says Matthew Eby, executive director of the First Street Foundation. “What we’re seeing is that in some areas that risk is going to double, triple, quadruple. And in areas that already have really high levels of risk, like California, we’re seeing an increase of almost 50% .”
More than 30 million homes in the lower 48 states — about 20% of homes — are at measurable risk of being affected by a wildfire. Some 1.5 million properties have a greater than 26% chance of burning down over the next 30 years.
Eby says even a small wildfire risk accumulates over the life of a 30-year mortgage, but that cumulative probability is hard to grasp. Most disasters are framed by their annual risk, such as a century-old storm.
To perform the analysis, First Street ran complex computer models, simulating the spread of wildfires across different landscapes. Then, to determine each house’s vulnerability, they used satellite images and created computer algorithms to assess the amount of vegetation surrounding a house and the roof material, based on its color.
Although wildfire hazard maps can fill an information void, experts warn that the maps are imperfect. Homeowners living just outside risk areas on a map may feel a false sense of security. And wildfire maps are more accurate when communities can provide details about local conditions. Wildfire experts also warn that computer models that simulate the spread of wildfires also need an update, given the complex dynamics of weather and fires.
Government maps flood risk, but not wildfire risk
For 50 years, urban planners and property owners have had a clearer view of the dangers posed by flooding. In 1968, after a series of destructive hurricanes, Congress created a landmark program that has shaped cities ever since. The National Flood Insurance Program provided insurance to at-risk properties, and as part of this, FEMA released maps showing where flooding was likely to occur.
“For many communities across the country, this is the primary resource they have for understanding which areas are prone to flood risk,” says David Bascom, who leads FEMA’s Engineering Resources Branch. “In many cases, it’s the only tool they have to make decisions.”
But even as wildfires have wreaked increasing havoc across the country, few states or communities have mapped their wildfire risk. California created maps in 2007, but they are now considered obsolete, and state fire officials are working on a long-awaited update. Oregon is in the process of creating its first comprehensive statewide maps.
For states that have maps, hotspots are a fundamental tool to help communities prepare for wildfires. In California, they determine whether new homes need to be built to meet wildfire building codes, which require fire-resistant building materials that reduce the chances of a house catching on fire. Many cities and counties receive state and federal grants based on their wildfire danger rating.
In 2018, Congress asked the US Forest Service to create national wildfire maps. The result, Risk of forest fire for communitiesshows how cities and neighborhoods are vulnerable to wildfires, but is not detailed enough to be used for properties and single-family homes.
“Because this is a large national mapping project where we don’t have property level data on how sensitive each person’s home is – what is the siding material, what is the roofing material , etc. – we’re looking at that very roughly,” says Greg Dillon, director of the US Forest Service’s Fire Modeling Institute.
How knowing the risk of wildfire could help homeowners
While seeing that a house has a substantial risk of burning may deter some buyers or renters, others may have to ignore it in favor of finding a home. Millions of homes are already being built in areas prone to wildfires, not just in the western United Statesand a national housing shortage often leaves people with few options.
“We already live in these places that have a lot of risk, so we need to think about how to better adapt to fire and make our homes and communities safer,” Pohl said.
Just knowing that wildfires are a risk can always help homeowners. Many houses are ignited by embers that can be blown far ahead of the actual fire. Studies show that even affordable home projects can improve a home’s chances of survival.
In the hills of Oakland, Grossman did just that. He worked with his neighbors to clean up overgrown vegetation on a nearby vacant lot. At home, he cut down a tall cypress hedge and replaced the wood mulch with gravel within five feet of his house. Now he is focused on making sure the escape routes are also clear, so they are not engulfed in flames before people can get out.
“We have to find a way to collectively shift from a mindset of ‘me, me, me’ to a mindset of ‘we’re in this together,'” Grossman says. “Let’s be partners and help each other.”
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