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Sassan Darian, 38, holds his cat, Cyrus, as he assesses the damage outside his father's home on Coronado Pointe in California on May 12, 2022

Sassan Darian, 38, holds his cat, Cyrus, as he assesses the damage outside his father's home on Coronado Pointe in California on May 12, 2022. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

'Fueling the Flames': Model Shows Growing Risk of Wildfires in US

"It's time to end fossil fuels and better manage our forests."

Jessica Corbett

With wildfires raging in key parts of the United States on Monday, a new model revealed where the risk will increase in the coming decades as the climate emergency worsens.

First Street Foundation released its "Wildfire Model," which the New York-based nonprofit said is "the only nationwide, probabilistic, climate-adjusted, peer-reviewed, property-specific wildfire risk model for properties in the contiguous United States."

As detailed in The 5th National Risk Assessment: Fueling the Flames, the group's "Fire Factor" scoring system calculates a property's risk of experiencing a fire over the next 30 years.

Between now and 2052, across the 48 states studied, nearly 80 million properties face some risk, according to First Street. Specifically:

  • 49.4 million face "minor" risk (less than 1%);
  • 20.2 million face "moderate" risk (up to 6%);
  • 6 million face "major" risk (up to 14%);
  • 2.7 million face "severe" risk (up to 26%); and
  • 1.5 million face "extreme" risk (over 26%).

"The lack of a property-specific, climate-adjusted wildfire risk for individual properties has severely hindered everyone from the federal government to your average American," said Matthew Eby, First Street's founder and executive director, in a statement.

"As a changing climate drives more frequent and severe wildfire events, Fire Factor will prove critical in ensuring everyone has the insights they need to understand their personal risk to avoid and protect against the devastating impact of a wildfire," he added.

The score will be incorporated into Realtor.com, whose lead product manager, Sara Brinton, said Monday that a recent survey by the website found that "7 out of 10 recent homebuyers considered the risk of natural disasters when deciding where to live."

According to The New York Times:

Researchers at the Forest Service and elsewhere said First Street's approach was reasonable, though they cautioned that such granular projections should be viewed as estimates only, with significant levels of uncertainty.

Greg Dillon, director of the Forest Service's Fire Modeling Institute, said people also shouldn't discount the threat of wildfire just because they're not in the highest risk categories on such maps. "If you're in anything but the lowest risk category, you should be talking to your neighbors about risk mitigation and what you can do," he said. "In a lot of the United States, there's a potential for fire."

First Street's assessment points out that "wildfire risk across the United States has been increasing in recent years, as described by a number of studies of the increased wildfire incidence, and, relatedly, the increasing threat to forests and communities. This growing risk threatens the economic stability, natural resources, and quality of life for the communities and property owners affected."

"Supporting wildfire suppression at the local, state, and federal levels is among the most expensive wildfire protection efforts, costing the federal government $2 billion annually across the U.S. today," the report continues, citing Office of Management and Budget estimates suggesting that "those costs could rise to $2.83 billion under conservative climate change scenarios by 2050, and perhaps to as much as $4.32 billion under higher emissions scenarios."

"Enhanced understanding of the specific nature and location of wildfire risk enables communities to more effectively lobby for funding for fuel treatments, prescribed burns, and other wildfire risk mitigation strategies that may be used to reduce risk to houses, businesses, and communities across the U.S., and could help constrain the costs associated with suppression activities," the document argues, making the case for the group's work.

Reporting on the project, The Washington Post found from an analysis of the group's data 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."

People living in the West and South currently face the greatest fire threat and the at-risk share of the population in both regions is expected to grow over the next three decades: from 32.7% to 39.5% and 18.2% 26.2%, respectively.

"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," the Post found. "White residents rank third on the list. Estimates show that three decades from now, about 1 in 5 will face significant fire risk."

The new data—which people can access for their residences online—and related reporting come as some major blazes are devouring homes and other structures, including in northern New Mexico, where the nation's current largest fire has already consumed 288,968 acres.

"The sky, everything was orange. It looked like an inferno, so we just jumped in the car," Sassan Darian told the Associated Press last week about fleeing with his child and father. "My daughter said, 'We're on fire.' There were sparks on her and we were patting ourselves down."

As of Monday, three were 11 active wildfires nationwide and blazes had burned nearly 1.3 million acres across the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

That figure is roughly 70% higher than the 10-year average and, as The Guardian noted Friday, "predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the West, with the drought and warmer weather brought on by the climate crisis worsening wildfire danger."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the sweeping package intended to help deliver on President Joe Biden's climate pledges has stalled in the Senate, due to Republicans and a couple of right-wing Democrats—and, as Government Executive reported Monday, "the proposal to connect federal research agencies and improve wildfire research crashed and burned."


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