Americans facing the toughest housing market in years are not only facing soaring property prices and rising mortgage rates, they are also facing the risk of natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes and, increasingly, wildfires.
Fires are becoming more intense and frequent due to climate change, which is drying out vegetation and making fires more likely to ignite and burn longer. Notably, that also increases the likelihood of wildfires in areas known for temperate and humid climates.
As a result, Florida now has the third most properties at risk of fire, 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, face some wildfire risk, according to First Street. California has the most properties with some wildfire risk, at 4.6 million, while Texas has 4.5 million, according to First Street.
Nationwide, First Street research shows that around 26 million homes have at least some wildfire risk, a far higher number than previously reported.
Other Western states have a much higher proportion of properties at risk of fire. In Wyoming and New Mexico, two-thirds of all properties have at least moderate fire risk; in Utah and Arizona, nearly 60% do, and in Montana and Oklahoma about half.
First Street, which has quantified the effects of climate change Y flood on the nation’s infrastructure, decided on a 1% risk over 30 years (the lifespan of a typical mortgage) as a meaningful floor to show the potential impact of fire damage. While there are far fewer homes at risk of fire than other disasters such as flooding, the potential impact of a fire is much more severe, said Jeremy Porter, director of research for First Street.
“If there’s a fire that touches your property, then it’s not like you’re looking at $20,000 in damage, it’s total destruction,” Porter said. “The scale of the damage is hard to deal with.”
More fire-prone areas
First Street’s research shows that wildfire risks are likely to increase over the next 30 years, especially in areas not currently known for wildfires.
“Wildfire risk is increasing in places where people don’t 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 wildfire risk score to every property on its site in the continental US, including those not for sale, to educate potential homeowners and buyers, Brinton said. (Eventually, the feature will also be available for rent.) The scores take into account the characteristics of an individual building that make it more or less likely to burn, including the layout of the property, proximity to vegetation, building materials, and even what type of windows a home has. .
“Single-pane vs. double-pane windows are a huge determining factor in whether a home will burn in a wildfire,” said Ed Kearns, director of data for First Street. Features like metal screens on attic vents can also improve a home’s ability to resist a wildfire.
Home buyers are increasingly concerned about the risk of natural disasters on their properties, as climate change makes landslides, floods and wildfires more frequent. 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.
“We often hear from consumers that it has become so important in the home buying process,” said Sara Brinton, senior product manager for Realtor.com.
Two years ago, Realtor.com added a flood risk feature that lists the probability of flood damage for all properties. Since then, it has become one of the site’s most popular features, Brinton said.
Climate warming increases the probability of fires
Climate change, brought on by the burning of fossil fuels, is making drought more likely in places like the Southeast and other parts of the East Coast that have not historically been known for fires, Kearns said. Higher temperatures can dry out normally moist wooded areas and make the fire more likely to ignite and spread.
“It only takes about 100 hours of drying in hot conditions for the fuel to become fuel,” he said.
While fires in the East are generally not as large as those in the West, the denser population in the East means thousands of people are potentially affected. And as the weather warms, fire risks will increase, said Matthew Eby, executive director of First Street.
“The last five years have been horrible, and that’s the new norm: in the next few decades it’s only going to get more intense,” he said.