Raging wildfires in New Mexico and California could provide an ominous outlook for a growing swath of America, and not just in the West.
The risk of wildfires is increasing, probably due to global warming, and its destruction is becoming increasingly expensive. Of the wildfires that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tracked since 1980, 66% of the damage occurred in the last five years. Insured losses from wildfires last year totaled $5 billion, according to a Yale University report, marking the seventh consecutive year of insured losses exceeding $2 billion.
Wildfire risk modeling is more critical than ever to help protect life and property, and new technology from a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, the First Street Foundation, maps the threat with house-by-house specificity.
Using everything from property tax data to satellite imagery, First Street assigns a wildfire risk score that takes into account construction type, roof type, weather and exposure to natural fuels like trees and grass.
Laguna Niguel, California May 11, 2022 – Firefighters battle a brush fire at Coronado Pointe in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday.
Wally Skalij | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
“We calculate the risk of every property and structure across the country, whether it’s a commercial building or a person’s home,” said Matthew Eby, founder and CEO of the First Street Foundation. “What you’re able to see from that is that one home may have the same probability as another to be in a wildfire, but be much more susceptible to burning down.”
For example, certain homes may be more vulnerable due to their construction materials, the safe space around them or the type of roof. The company models the immediate risk to Americans’ homes and then adjusts for expected climate change.
“We can then use supercomputers to simulate 100 million wildfire scenarios today, and then another 100 million scenarios 30 years into the future with the predicted weather conditions,” Eby said.
First Street gives each home a unique score and unique probabilities of risk. It did the same for water threats, partnering with Realtor.com to put a flood score on each property on the home sales website. This feature is now the second most clicked map on Realtor.com, behind school district data on K-12 performance.
“The response to flooding has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s really helpful to make informed decisions and understand what it’s like to protect your home,” said Sara Brinton, senior project manager at Realtor.com.
Prospective buyers and homeowners who find their flood and fire results on Realtor.com can click on a link for more information on First Street’s website to find out how to best protect their home.
“On a monthly basis, we see tens of thousands of impressions against our flood factor data,” Eby said.
More than 71% of recent homebuyers considered natural disasters when considering where to move, according to a recent survey by Realtor.com and research firm HarrisX. About half of those surveyed reported that they were more concerned about natural disasters today than they were five years ago.
The First Street fire model places particular emphasis on what it calls the “wilderness-urban interface,” where residential developments abut wooded areas.
At least 10 million properties rank somewhere between “major” and “extreme” wildfire risk, according to First Street. While the risk of flooding grows by about 25% over 30 years, the risk of wildfires doubles overall and jumps more than 200% in places you might not expect, like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas.
This change helps explain why big companies like Nuveen Real Estate buy the data to inform their investments.
“The First Street data helps us get a really close look at how the building will be affected? And more importantly, how can we reflect this increased risk in our warranty?” said Jessica Long, head of sustainability for Nuveen’s US real estate portfolio. “We use the data as part of new investment screening as well as part of our annual business planning process.”
For homeowners, the information not only guides them in buying a home, but it can also help protect one they already own. For example, the fire score can help inform minor changes to reduce this risk, such as adjusting landscaping or ventilation. Experts say it is much easier to protect a home from wildfires than from major floods.
When First Street introduced its flood score feature, the data was met with concerns that it would lower the value of higher-risk homes. Realtor.com’s Brinton said there have been very few complaints, but added, “In a few places, we’re seeing homes appreciating somewhat more slowly in areas with high flood risk scores.”