Wildfires are a widespread risk for homeowners in the West. But quantifying the risk of forest fires has so far been more difficult than flooding, for example, because of their nature. Forest fires spread quickly, the wind can move embers and sparks long distances, clinging to trees and buildings.
“Unfortunately, [until] at this point, there’s never been a way for people to understand what their property-level wildfire risk is,” said Matt Eby, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of First Street.
First Street found that nearly 80 million properties are at some risk of wildfire, ranging from minor (less than 1% chance of wildfire damage over 30 years) to extreme (over 26% risk of damage from forest fire over 30 years).
While the vast majority of these – 49 million – are at minor risk, more than 4 million properties are at severe or extreme risk.
“Houses that are at risk of wildfire today, their risk roughly doubles over a 30-year period because the climate is getting warmer; the combustibles are drying up,” Eby told CNN.
The risk of fire increases
Outside experts who reviewed First Street’s nationwide risk assessment told CNN the assessment matches what they see: Western states as well as those in the Plains are experiencing a tougher time. drier and hotter, which dries out vegetation and creates more fuel for the fire.
“The danger increases because the likelihood of burns increases,” said Cal Fire wildfire scientist Dave Sapsis. “There is more fuel, the fuels are very dry because we are in prolonged droughts.
“There is also more [property] it’s out there in the way of being impacted.”
In addition to western states – which already face high risk – the risk will increase in southern states such as Texas and Florida, as well as states in the Appalachian region of the country, such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
“The risk is going to increase so much in the Appalachian and Southeast regions,” said Ed Kearns, First Street’s chief data officer. “When you’re in these areas, you see green forests and green trees. In Florida and other parts of the southeast, this type of climate change is different than it is in the west, but fire is just as dangerous.”
Six New Mexico counties — including areas where the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire burned more than 280,000 acres — are among the counties with the highest percentage of properties at wildfire risk, models show. of First Street.
In Texas, at least 90% of properties in 45 counties are at risk, a sign that wildfire danger is not just relegated to the West.
Dry grass is a key fuel for Texas wildfires, according to Texas A&M Forest Service wildfire behavior analyst Brad Smith. More than 30% of the state was in extreme drought by mid-May — a month that is typically the wettest in the state.
Smith was on his way to a fire in San Saba County when he spoke with CNN.
“I’ve worked fire for 40 years now,” Smith said. “Homes aren’t saved the day of the fire, they’re saved days, weeks, years in advance. When buying homes, you want to be aware – just like a flood zone – that there is also has fire zones, where homes are more at risk.”