When a wildfire tore through drought-stricken towns near Boulder, Colo., late last year, it reminded Americans that fire risk is changing. It didn’t matter that it was winter. It didn’t matter that many of the more than 1,000 homes and other structures lost sat in suburban subdivisions, not forested enclaves. The old rules no longer applied.
A new analysis reveals for the first time that a broad swath of the country, not typically associated with wildfires, is already under threat. Nearly 80 million properties in the United States stand a significant chance of exposure to fire, according to a model built by the nonprofit First Street Foundation.
In the next few decades, many people will face greater danger than they do now.
A Washington Post analysis of the group’s data found that an estimated 16% of the country’s population today lives in hazardous areas. Over the next 30 years, that share will increase to 21%. Nearly half of all Americans who live in areas vulnerable to fire will reside in the South, and minorities face a disproportionate risk.
Wildfires are becoming more severe and frequent because of human-caused climate change. Record-breaking heat and drought fueled by increasing greenhouse gas emissions are drying out grasslands and forests and lengthening the fire season. And more people are moving to communities built where wildfires are part of the landscape’s natural ecology. They are building homes right next to vegetation, putting themselves in danger.
Up until now, it was difficult to pinpoint how wildfires may put specific locations in peril. Publicly available data on wildfire risk is not detailed enough to show a particular house or commercial building’s exposure. And most people don’t have access to the more precise estimates that insurance companies calculate.
Fire Factor, the new model built by the First Street Foundation, aims to fill the gap with a website where people can look up data for their addresses.
An uneven danger
Overall, First Street’s data covers the contiguous United States, revealing how unevenly fire risk is spread across the country.
California has the most at-risk properties because of its large size and Mediterranean climate. But across the Southern half of the country, states including Texas, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, North Carolina and South Carolina stand at the forefront of a growing problem.
The Washington Post’s analysis of the group’s fire data and population density found that by 2052 the South will be home to the largest number of people with significant fire risk – 32 million residents.
Among Southern states, Texas is at the top of the list, followed by Florida. That might seem surprising, given Florida’s history of being battered by hurricanes and, more recently, tidal flooding driven by rising seas and intense storms. But it has seasonal fires that begin in early spring, part of a natural cycle that helps cone-bearing trees spread their seeds.
Deb Niemeier, a University of Maryland environmental engineering professor who focuses on community resilience and post-disaster recovery, said that just as in the West, climate change is extending the Southeastern coastal region’s traditional fire season through baking temperatures and increasingly severe droughts.
“The small things that we could contain in the past may be very big ignitions in the future because you have these other effects,” Niemeier said.
Western states bear a larger share of the risk, particularly in the Mountain West. The Post found that about 33% of people in Western states today face a significant chance of wildfire exposure. That number will probably grow to about 39% by 2052.
Though President Joe Biden has approved nearly $3.5 billion for communities to prepare for disasters related to extreme weather and climate change, only about 4% of all the counties facing fire exposure in this analysis have applied for wildfire mitigation projects. To be eligible for this Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, a county or state must first receive a major disaster declaration. But of the more than 2,000 counties facing fire danger, only about 20% have experienced a FEMA-declared fire disaster since 2010.
People of color in peril
The Post’s analysis of First Street’s data found that wildfire danger appears to disproportionally affect communities of color.
By 2052, about 44% of all Native Americans will live in areas with significant probability of wildfire. Nearly 1 in every 4 Hispanic people will be living in similar communities.
White residents rank third on the list. Estimates show that three decades from now, about 1 in 5 will face significant fire risk.
Previous research has found that minority groups are especially vulnerable to damage from wildfires. Language barriers and limited car ownership can make it difficult for them to flee a fast-moving blaze. After a devastating fire, job insecurity and lack of insurance can complicate their recovery.
Lilliane Ballesteros, executive director of the Latino Community Fund in Washington, said Latinos in rural or farmworker communities in the central part of the state know what they risk living in a fire-prone area, but they often can’t afford to move.
“We work with farmworkers who insist on going back to work when the conditions are dangerous,” Ballesteros said. “They can’t take time off or live elsewhere.”
Ballesteros said there is a growing effort by Latino-led community groups to share information about steps residents can take to guard themselves against fire danger. Her organization holds trainings in Spanish, translates official documents and tries to win the trust of people reluctant to have their properties assessed for fire risk because it might lead to citations.
“People don’t have the time and resources to even access this information,” she said. “In some communities, this work requires one-on-one conversations.”
The First Street website aims to put this information in the hands of anyone with a computer or a smartphone. Their tool pulls data from a variety of sources, including federal wildfire databases and local information about each property’s age, building material and design, and it will calculate a risk factor for wildfire exposure today and 30 years from now when the effects of climate change worsen.
Similar to the foundation’s flood model, its fire analysis will also be available on Realtor.com, putting buyers, sellers and renters on equal footing when it comes to understanding a property’s vulnerabilities.
“It’s not just this doom-and-gloom thing. There are great solutions,” said Matthew Eby, First Street’s founder and executive director, in an interview. For each address, the website will show people how much they can reduce their risk by making their homes and properties more fire-resistant. Creating a barrier between structures and flammable vegetation, known as a defensible space, and using fire-proof building materials are proven ways to increase a home’s chances of surviving a fire.
People will “be able to understand how the different solutions would impact their vulnerability,” Eby said. “We would hope they would take action.”
The Post estimated the population affected by significant fire risk by adjusting the population of census tracts by the percent of properties and parcels with at least a 0.03% risk that were provided by the First Street Foundation. At the county level, The Post used summarized data provided by First Street and matched it with data from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program through 2010. Regions and divisions were identified by the Census Bureau.