Millions Of Homes Are At Risk Of Wildfires, But It’s Rarely Disclosed
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Jennifer Montano watches her two kids' faces as they quietly clamber out of the car in their driveway in Vacaville, Calif. It's been a week since the children were last home, but where their house once stood, there's ash and rubble now.
In August, the Montanos' house was destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, one of more than 10,000 structures lost in record-breaking blazes across the West this year.
The children start walking around the pile that remains. Almost nothing is recognizable. The fridge is a charred metal box. Montano pulls up a tangle of wires and realizes it used to be their piano. "Our goal is to make sure they feel this as little as possible," she says.
Her 10-year-old daughter, Aliyah, uncovers a red and green ceramic mug. "Yay, part of Christmas survived," she says. It's an unofficial rule that many fire survivors discover: Usually all you can salvage is a mug or two.
The family left home when two emergency responders showed up late at night at their house. With the fire moving in fast, the responders told the Montanos they only had 10 minutes to evacuate.
"Once you see fear in a firefighter's eyes," Ryan Montano says, "that's when you know things aren't good."
When they moved here seven years ago, the Montanos loved the views of grassy hillsides and oak trees. The possibility of wildfire didn't occur to them. After wildfires struck other parts of California in recent years, they considered what to take with them if one hit, but they didn't expect a fire to overrun their home and strip everything away.
"We had a good preparation plan for evacuation, but you can prepare to only take so much," Ryan Montano says. "You can't just throw your house on the back of a truck and go."
The Montanos are among millions of people in the West who move into fire-prone landscapes without getting any warning about that risk from the government, real estate agents or sellers. Almost 60 million homes were within less than a mile of a wildfire between 1992 and 2015. And those numbers only continue to grow as climate change increases the risk of bigger, more frequent blazes in the American West.
An NPR analysis finds that most wildfire-prone states have no requirements for disclosing fire risk to someone who buys or rents a home. In the two states that do, the disclosures amount to only a few lines of text, buried in the hundreds of pages buyers typically receive when closing on a new home.
Knowing wildfire risk can spell the difference between saving or losing a home, or even saving lives. Informed homeowners in fire country would be more likely to have evacuation plans. They would be more likely to take fire-proofing steps. Cutting back flammable brush and making a roof or eaves more fire-resistant greatly increases the odds that, after a wildfire, people will still have a home to which they can return.
Just two states with wildfire disclosures
Wildfire has always been part of the West as an integral cycle in ecosystems, but climate change is priming the region to burn big.
At the same time, millions of people have moved into wildfire country. Between 1990 and 2015, 32 million homes were built in neighborhoods that border wildlands, an area known as the "wildland-urban interface."
Only California and Oregon require wildfire risk be disclosed to new homebuyers. Home disclosure forms and guidelines in nine other fire-prone states in the West make no specific mention of wildfires. In contrast, 29 U.S. states require flood disclosure information, including whether a property sits in a flood plain or how much flood insurance costs.
"If we've done it with flood, I don't understand why we wouldn't also want to do it with wildfire," says Kimiko Barrett, policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a land management think tank. "And similarly with hurricanes. I think the way climate change is impacting all aspects of where and how we live and under what conditions, we're going to have to start to think about all those climatic hazards in a new way."
The lack of information means millions of people potentially make one of the largest investments of their lives without considering wildfires. In one study, researchers surveyed homeowners in Colorado's Front Range and found the majority vastly underestimated how likely their homes are to burn.
"Surprisingly, a number of people said: 'Well, I didn't know I lived in a place with wildfire risk until I got this survey,' " says Patty Champ, research economist at the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, who conducted the survey.
Even in states that disclose wildfire risk, the necessary information isn't clear. Homebuyers in Oregon don't see the word "wildfire" mentioned in the seven-page disclosure statement that's filed during a sale. Instead, one line specifies if a property is in the "forestland-urban interface," a potential wildfire zone mapped by state officials.
California has a special form for disclosing natural hazards, which specifies if a property either has "very high" fire potential or has "substantial forest fire risk." If either applies, homeowners must clear flammable brush and dry vegetation around their house to reduce the fire risk by creating "defensible space." Those rules are enforced in some parts of the state but not others.
After so many lives were lost in recent wildfires, California lawmakers passed a bill last year to increase wildfire disclosures. Starting in 2021, sellers must inform a buyer if they're in compliance with flammable brush rules and provide a list of potential ways the home might be susceptible to igniting. From 2025, sellers must say if they've completed retrofits to make the home more fire-resistant.
Lack of risk information
Even if other states wanted to require disclosure of wildfire risk as California has done, that information isn't necessarily available. While federal flood maps have been available since the 1970s, indicating risk down to the individual address level, wildfire maps are few.
Some states, such as California, Nevada and Colorado, have assessments of wildfire risk online, which homeowners can use to look up their addresses. Other states haven't done detailed analyses. Mapping wildfire risk requires detailed modeling since fire behavior can vary greatly over short distances due to terrain and vegetation.
The U.S. Forest Service released new maps this year showing community risk nationwide, but the agency says the maps aren't fine-scaled enough to use for individual properties. Insurance companies have done the most detailed risk analysis, but many homeowners don't find out until their insurance rates go up or their policy is canceled.
Most existing wildfire maps also don't reflect added risk from climate change as hotter temperatures fuel more extreme fires. During heat waves, the air saps moisture from plants and vegetation, making them more flammable. Typically, night was a time when temperatures and fire activity fell, giving firefighters a much needed break. Now, climate change has pushed evening temperatures higher, which means big fires can stay active through the night.
The total forested area that burned in the U.S. from 1984 to 2015 is nearly double what it would have been had the climate not gotten warmer, researchers found.
Some areas, such as California's Sierra Nevada, are overloaded with flammable vegetation because over the last century, fire agencies fought to extinguish all fires. Native American tribes had long used fires to clear out brush and promote new growth, but they were forcibly removed from their lands, halting the use of controlled burns to limit the vegetation that fuels fires. As a result, many ecosystems, normally adapted to low-grade fires, are now fueling megafires. Fire agencies are slowly returning controlled burning to the landscape, but with tens of millions of acres in need, they have a steep hill to climb.
Fires hitting home
Disclosing more information about wildfire risk could help homebuyers make better informed decisions. Still, providing that information after a buyer has decided to make the purchase may not be effective since it's often buried in hundreds of pages of information provided by the seller, some disaster experts say
"Imagine that you're sitting and buying your first home and you're so excited about it," says Alice Hill, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked on disaster planning in the Obama administration. "You're thinking about measuring the curtains, and someone puts a huge stack of papers in front of you. And in that stack is some very small print. You're just not going to register it at that point. You're too far along."
Some communities are working on educating homeowners in other ways. In Eagle, Colo., homeowner Kathryn Eddy is having a personalized inspection of her new home.
"We want to look at how this structure will fare when the vegetation around it is putting embers on the house," says Eric Lovgren, wildfire mitigation coordinator for Eagle County, as he walks around the outside of the house with Eddy.
Lovgren works in the county's REALFire program, which helps homeowners understand fire risk and make their homes more fire-resistant. Most homes aren't destroyed by wildfires burning directly up to their walls. Instead, they're ignited by embers that are blown far ahead of the fire.
Even simple fixes can decrease the chances of ignition, such as cutting dry brush right around a home, cutting back tree limbs, cleaning out gutters and covering attic vents with a fine mesh to prevent embers from entering. Other more expensive fixes can also help, such as installing double-pane windows and replacing wood roofs and siding with fire-resistant materials.
"There's one vulnerable thing that I see and that is your firewood pile underneath that window, and that's a real common thing," Lovgren says to Eddy.
For Eddy, it's all new information. It's her first time living in Colorado.
"This is a different climate for me," Eddy tells him. "I'm from east Tennessee, and we have water everywhere. With climate change, trees are drier, winds are gusty."
For Lovgren, the program is about changing people's mindsets about fire.
"We can develop a better relationship with wildfire knowing it's a thing that's going to be with us," Lovgren says. "And we can create these fire-adapted communities that have a much better chance of coming out, not unharmed, but with minimal damage from a catastrophic wildfire event."
Enlisting real estate agents
Homeowners often find the REALFire program through their real estate agents, because it's partially funded by the Vail Board of Realtors. Some fire inspections have even been part of home sale negotiations, with Lovgren's findings affecting the final price of a house.
While not all local real estate agents participate, some see discussion of wildfire risk as helping, not hurting, a potential sale.
"I think it's adding a service," says Mike Budd, a Vail real estate agent who helped develop the program. "We want to be sure that we've helped our clients in every conceivable fashion."
The program began six years ago after more stringent wildfire safety recommendations from a statewide task force were rejected. That included disclosing wildfire risk in real estate transactions, potentially before a prospective buyer has even made an offer on a property.
The statewide Colorado Association of Realtors lobbied against the provision, saying that voluntary programs and education would be enough.
"We were just coming out of the real estate bust, and we'd had a lot of foreclosures," Budd says. "We felt what was being recommended wasn't taking those things into consideration."
Today, the REALFire program inspects about 80 homes per year, a small fraction of the houses in Eagle County. To reduce wildfire risk truly in the community, almost every home would need to participate. Even one home with flammable brush puts others at risk, because fires spread from structure to structure.
"Voluntary measures by the homeowner just aren't going to work," says Barrett, the policy analyst at Headwaters Economics. "One homeowner is going to do everything right, and their neighbor is going to decide not to do anything. And therefore, they're still at risk."
Fire experts say homeowner education is a crucial element in reducing the destructiveness of Western wildfires. Even if homeowners clear defensible space one year, brush and grass grow back, requiring continuing maintenance. Preparing for wildfires isn't a one-time job.
Still, homeowners alone won't be able to turn the tide against increasingly extreme fires in a warming world. The decision to build in fire-prone areas is usually made by developers and local officials, guided by large-scale zoning plans that often don't take wildfire risk into account. Financially, many local governments are incentivized to keep allowing new development, even in risky areas.
"They collect the tax revenue from those properties," Barrett says. "And yet, when it comes to wildfire, they're not the ones who have to foot that bill when it comes to wildfire suppression efforts. That comes from the federal government and taxpayers."
To prepare communities for future wildfires and reduce their destructive toll, fire risk in a warming world needs to be transparent at all levels — from federal policymaking to decisions that individuals must make every day, such as choosing a safe place to live.
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