- New model lets homeowners see their fire risk
- Wildfires burning more acres across the U.S. each year
- Taking steps to try to lower fire risk is do-it-yourself friendly
Teresa Burgess woke up in the middle of the night to her neighbor’s son shouting and pounding on the windows and doors of her Ventura, California home. Through the windows she could see an eerie orange glow.
“It was pretty frightening,” Burgess said. “We could see emergency vehicles. The winds were howling.”
After grabbing just a few things, she and her husband could feel the heat of the fire as they loaded their three dogs into vehicles and drove away from their home of 25 years. It would be one of more than 500 homes torched that night by flames and glowing embers the size of basketballs.
Fires like these have put California in the news countless times in recent years, but it’s one of many states where residents face a growing wildfire threat, and that risk is forecast to increase exponentially in the years ahead, concludes a new report released Monday by the First Street Foundation.
The report analyzes the results of a first of its kind wildfire risk model, developed by the non-profit foundation and its partners in a public-private collaboration. The model assesses each property’s risk based on a broad array of data and information, including property type, building materials, terrain and proximity to historic fires.
Property owners across the country can type in their address at Riskfactor.com or at Realtor.com and learn more about their risk, then scroll through and see how that threat changes over time and what they might consider doing to make their properties safer.
Some 80 million homes and other structures across the country are threatened by wildfire risk, said Matthew Eby, the Foundation’s founder and executive director. Of those more than 10% face a risk considered major, severe or extreme, with anywhere from a 6% to 26% chance of a wildfire over a 30-year period.
The First Street Foundation, a New York-based non-profit, has previously modeled flood risk from rising sea levels and extreme rainfall, launching a tool for homeowners in 2020 on Realtor.com called Flood Factor. The results of their latest work on wildfire risk, Fire Factor, launched Monday.
Millions of people each year make decisions on the biggest investment of their lives – buying a home – without the right information at their fingertips, Eby said. He hopes to change that.
Although the annual number of wildfires has decreased slightly in the U.S. over the last 30 years, the number of acres burned each year is increasing, more than double what it was in the 1990s, concluded a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Fires burned 7.1 million acres in 2021, and 10.12 million acres in 2020, just below a record high set in 2015, based on statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fires burn in massive conflagrations that give people little time to prepare or react. Rising temperatures and lengthy droughts make conditions worse and more people are in harm’s way. More than 3,500 homes burned last year.
Not only is the wildfire risk expected to increase over the next 30 years, but many properties with moderate levels of risk now will move into higher levels, the report stated.
“Fire is driven by heat and heat is the number one thing we see changing in climate models,” Eby told USA TODAY.
Over the next 30 years, the states with the biggest increase in the number of properties that meet the foundation’s threshold for risk are Colorado, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Montana. Also in the top 10 with the biggest increases are Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, Kansas and South Carolina.
Seeing those southeastern states in the list was the biggest surprise after hundreds of millions of model runs, said Ed Kearns, the Foundation’s chief data officer.
In Appalachia and along the East Coast it’s going to get drier and more combustible, said Kearns, a former chief data officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It kind of reaffirmed a fear that I had, but it’s even more widespread than I thought.”
However, states in the Northeast have a low fire risk, the study found.
Among the list of counties with the most properties at risk are three in California — Riverside, Los Angeles and San Bernardino — as well as Maricopa County, Arizona and Polk County, Florida.
The counties with the largest percentage of properties at risk are Los Alamos, Harding and Colfax in New Mexico and Mason and Gillespie in Texas. In each of those counties, more than 97.9% of the structures in the county are at risk, according to the Foundation’s modeling.
Fire Factor includes a graphic on the possible height of flames that could reach a home, how likely a home might be to combust and the most recent wildfire larger than 100 acres within 20 miles. Eby said people will be able to use the tool to understand their risk at a property level and also how that risk is going to evolve over the next 30 years.
Most encouraging to Kearns are model results that show efforts to reduce fuels and use fire breaks do make a difference, Kearns said. “It’s a really good sign there are some big steps we can take on a large scale to protect communities.
Jim Karels, fire director for the National Association of State Foresters and retired director of the Florida Forest Service, isn’t aware of any previous nationwide program that allows property owners to examine their risk.
“The more tools the better,” said Karels. For him, the big question is how to convince people to take action once they learn about their risk, and to get them past the point of thinking a wildfire won’t happen to them.
In states like California, where they see recent or regular impacts to their neighbors, people take wildfire more seriously, he said. To his dismay, the same doesn’t appear to be true in Florida.
“Convincing homeowners to take steps to reduce their threats is probably the biggest hurdle we’ve got,” he said. He was Florida’s assistant chief for fire control during the “summer of fire” in 1998, when 500,000 acres and 150 structures burned.
At the time, it seemed like lessons Floridians would never forget. But since then, Karels said, “with a whole bunch of people moving in every day from places where they don’t have fires, it’s hard to convince them there’s a threat until it happens.”
When it comes down to it, securing a home against wildfire threats is probably the most affordable and do-it-yourself kind of disaster prevention, said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, FLASH. “It’s pretty achievable.”
Property owners can put wire mesh over soffit and vents and other openings to prevent flying embers from invading, she said. They can also add spark arresters in chimneys, decks that can’t catch fire and create three zones of defensible space around their homes.
The safe homes alliance, a Florida-based non-profit, educates homeowners about disasters and how to be resilient, especially when it comes to local building codes.
“We have to give them the tools to do it and they need information,” she said. “This type of custom risk information is excellent because it helps motivate people to take meaningful action that will save lives and homes in the future.”
For Burgess, the flames left heartache and pain in their wake. The couple learned their home burned about 24 hours later when their son, across the country, saw TV video of their house on fire.
Even though they had good insurance, the fire left gaping wounds in their lives. After the fire, they were required to sit down with an adjuster and go through room by room everything they lost and put a value on it. It took several visits.
“We already had bleeding wounds. They’d started to scab over and it was like getting the scab ripped off every time,” she said. “We couldn’t take it. We would just break down remembering everything we lost.”
Life goes on, Burgess said, but she still regrets leaving behind the 50 photo albums of their travels around the world. She and her husband divorced and never rebuilt their home. She sold the still-vacant lot earlier this year.
“It was an incredibly emotional, tumultuous time,” she said. “Based on my experience, I would say pretty much everybody is at risk.”
Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or at @dinahvp on Twitter.