Forecasters believe the West is in for a particularly bad wildfire year, as several destructive fires have already erupted well before the hottest, driest months. A fast-moving fire destroyed 20 homes in a wealthy Orange County, California, community on Wednesday night. More acres have already burned from large fires in New Mexico in the first five months of this year than in any other year in the last decade.
In the West, wildfire is a common threat to homeowners. However, because of the nature of wildfires, quantifying their risk has been more difficult than, say, floods. Wildfires spread quickly, and the wind can carry embers and sparks for long distances, catching on trees and structures.
The nonprofit First Street Foundation released a nationwide wildfire risk assessment on Monday, revealing a massive trove of data that shows homeowners and business owners how vulnerable their property is to wildfire. The information will be integrated into Realtor.com, allowing prospective buyers to determine their fire risk for any given property.
“Unfortunately, there has never been a way for people to understand what their wildfire risk is on a property level until now,” said Matt Eby, founder and executive director of First Street.
According to First Street, nearly 80 million properties are at risk of wildfire, ranging from minor (less than a 1% chance of wildfire damage over 30 years) to extreme (more than 26 percent chance of wildfire damage over 30 years).
While the vast majority of those — 49 million — are in minor danger, more than 4 million are in severe or extreme danger.
Many of the properties with the highest wildfire risk are in the West, where hot and dry conditions are exacerbated by man-made climate change, according to scientists. However, First Street discovered that risk will rise in both the West and other parts of the country over the next 30 years.
Outside experts who reviewed First Street’s nationwide risk assessment told CNN that the assessment is consistent with what they’re seeing: drier and hotter weather in the West and the Plains, which dries out vegetation and creates more fuel for fires.
“The hazard is increasing because burn probabilities are increasing,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire wildland fire scientist. “There is more fuel, but it is highly desiccated due to the prolonged drought.”
In addition to Western states, which are already at high risk, the risk will increase in Southern states such as Texas and Florida, as well as Appalachian states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.
“The risk in the Appalachian and southeastern areas is going to skyrocket,” said Ed Kearns, First Street’s chief data officer. “In these areas, you can see green forests and green trees. In Florida and other parts of the Southeast, this kind of climate change looks different than it does out West, but fire is every bit as dangerous.”
According to First Street’s models, six counties in New Mexico, including areas where the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire has burned more than 280,000 acres, have the highest percentage of properties at risk of wildfire.
In Texas, at least 90% of properties in 45 counties are at risk, indicating that wildfire danger isn’t limited to the West.
According to Brad Smith, a wildland fire behavior analyst with the Texas A&M Forest Service, dry grass is a major fuel source for wildfires in Texas. In mid-May, the state’s wettest month, more than 30 percent of the state was in extreme drought.