Wildfires scorching the West Coast are a growing risk for homeowners nationwide

Americans facing the toughest housing market in years are not only struggling with high house prices and rising mortgage rates, but are also increasingly exposed to natural disasters, such as floods, tornadoes and forest fires, wherever they live.

Amid the worst drought in at least 1,200 years, large parts of the American West are in the grip of wildfires. California’s biggest wildfire this year, the Oak Fire, threatens Yosemite National Park during the park’s busiest season, while blazes in Colorado have forced thousands to evacuate.

Forest fires are getting more and more intense and more frequent due to climate change, which dries out vegetation and makes fires more likely to break out and last longer. And it’s not just the West that is affected: climate change is also increasing the likelihood of wildfires in regions known for their temperate and humid climates.

As a result, Florida now has the third highest number of fire-risk properties, after California and Texas, according to new data from the First Street Foundation. Today, 3.9 million properties in the state — or 4 in 10 — are at risk of wildfire, according to First Street. California has the most properties at risk of wildfire, with 4.6 million, while Texas has 4.5 million, according to First Street.

Nationally, around 26 million homes are at least some wildfire risk, according to First Street research – a much higher number than previously reported.

Other western states have a much higher proportion of fire hazard properties. In Wyoming and New Mexico, two-thirds of all properties have at least a moderate fire risk; in Utah and Arizona, nearly 60% do, and in Montana and Oklahoma, about half do.

First Street, which quantified the effects of climate change and flood on the country’s infrastructure, decided on a 1% risk over 30 years (the life of a typical mortgage) as a meaningful floor to show the potential impact of fire damage. While far fewer homes are at risk from fire than other disasters, such as floods, the potential impact of a fire is far more severe, said Jeremy Porter, research director at First Street.

“If there’s a fire affecting your property, it’s not that you see $20,000 in damage, it’s total destruction,” Porter said. “The extent of the damage is difficult to assess.”


Three wildfires burn Florida Panhandle near Panama City

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More fire-prone areas

First Street research shows wildfire risk is likely to increase over the next 30 years, especially in areas currently unknown for wildfires.

“Wildfire risk is increasing in places where people might not expect it,” said Sara Brinton, senior product manager for Realtor.com. “People are very familiar with wildfires in Colorado, California, but wildfire risk is a growing problem in Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey.”

Realtor.com assigned a fire risk score for every property on its site in the continental United States — including those not for sale — to educate owners and potential buyers, Brinton said. (Eventually, the item will also be available for rental.) Scores take into account characteristics of an individual building that make it more or less likely to burn, including property layout, proximity to vegetation , construction materials and even what type of windows a house has.

“Whether single-glazed or double-glazed windows are a big factor in whether a house will burn in a wildfire,” said Ed Kearns, data manager at First Street. Features such as metal screens on attic vents can also improve a home’s ability to withstand a wildfire.

Homebuyers are increasingly concerned about the risk of natural disasters to their properties as climate change makes mudslides, floods and wildfires more common. A recent survey by Realtor.com and HarrisX found that more than three in four recent homebuyers consider natural disasters when choosing where to buy a home.


Construction in the race against climate change

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“Consumers regularly tell us that it’s become so important in the home buying journey,” Brinton said.

Two years ago, Realtor.com added a flood risk feature that lists the likelihood of flood damage for all properties. It’s since become one of the site’s most popular features, Brinton said.

Global warming makes fires more likely

Climate change, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, is making drought more likely in places like the Southeast and other parts of the East Coast, which have never been known for fire, Kearns noted. Warmer temperatures can dry out normally moist forest areas and make fire more likely to spread.

“It only takes about 100 hours of drying in hot conditions for the fuel to become combustible,” he said.

While fires in the east don’t usually get as big as in the west, a denser population in the east means thousands of people are potentially affected. And as the climate warms, the risk of fires will increase, noted Matthew Eby, executive director of First Street.

“The last five years have been horrible, and that’s sort of the new normal – over the next few decades it’s only going to get more intense,” he said.

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