Nearly 72 million homes in the U.S. have some level of risk of being burned by wildfires, according to a new analysis published Monday by the New York nonprofit First Street Foundation. And worse, climate change is expected to cause that number to swell to 80 million over the next 30 years. Although wildfires tend to be associated with California and other areas, First Street’s analysis suggests that there will be more brushfires in the United States. A state like Florida, where 6 percent of all properties are at wildfire risk, will see this value outright double to 12 percent by 2052.
To help homeowners navigate such increased dangers and plan ahead, First Street created Risk Factor, a first-of-its-kind online mapping tool for homeowners on the continental U.S. to see their property’s wildfire risk by ZIP Code. This information will appear on websites such as Realtor.com.
Such a map has been long overdue. The U.S. government maintains flood maps that help homeowners determine their property’s risk to flooding events. But only a few states have maps etching out wildfire risk. Many wildfire-prone states do not require sellers to disclose available information to anyone buying or renting a home, as demonstrated by a 2020 NPR investigation.
This is in spite of the fact that in 2018, Congress issued a mandate that the U.S. Forest Service create nationwide wildfire maps. The Wildfire Hazard to Communities was created. This website shows the vulnerability of neighborhoods to wildfires. This effort was too insufficient to give an estimate of the likelihood of a property being caught up in a spread of brushfires.
Climate change is only exacerbating the situation. A recent U.N. report stated that uncontrollable wildfires are projected to globally increase by 14 percent in 2030, by 30 percent in 2050, and by 50 percent by the end of the century. The U.S., is already experiencing the effects, as evidenced by extreme wildfires in California in the last few years, and elsewhere in the southwestern U.S. (a megafire is currently scorching thousands of acres in New Mexico).
First Street uses computer modeling for simulating wildfire behavior over the next 30 years, the average lifespan of a mortgage. This is according to Ed Kearns (climate change scientist, First Street’s chief information officer), The Daily Beast.
The computer models were taught to make their predictions after being fed information on the behavior and spread of over 500 historic wildfires. They also incorporated data on the distribution of natural wildlife fuels like trees and vegetation, and how the spread of these fuels is expected to change over time. First Street also incorporated information on the factors that make a house combustible like roof type (e.g. cedar shingles increase risk of burning), building material, and nearby vegetation. Lastly, they included 10 years worth of data on weather patterns from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to see how events like wind helps spread fires faster and how carbon emissions will influence future weather conditions (thus a fire’s intensity).
“Our goal is to make climate change personal and encourage people to take action.”
— Ed Kearns, First Street
“We run every possible permutation of all different kinds of weather, all kinds of ignitions using historical ignition locations and we see what comes out of it,” said Kearns. Based on these simulations, Risk Factor can then predict the likelihood that a house might burn down in the event of a wildfire, on a 10-point scale. Wildfire risks are higher for ZIP codes that have suffered more damage during the simulations. And over time climate change can cause smaller risks to snowball into bigger ones.
One dataset missing from this risk assessment is how fires create their own wind systems–a phenomenon called a firestorm, Craig Clements, director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Lab, said in an email to The Daily Beast. Kearns countered that these are extreme, rare wildfire scenarios and that Risk Factor’s scores should still be pretty accurate even if firestorms aren’t part of the modeling. First Street will keep updating its modeling on the basis of wildfire frequency and changes in vegetation. It also considers any wildfire mitigation measures that are implemented by neighborhoods.
“Government reports don’t make climate change a personal connection,” said Kearns. “Our goal is to make climate change personal and encourage people to take action.”
The post New Online Wildfire Risk Map Tells You How Vulnerable Your Home Is to Burning Down appeared first on The Daily Beast.