Education And Science

Is Your Home At Risk From Wildfire? Check These Maps.

We don’t know exactly when and where wildfires will strike, but almost two decades of fire history show the areas at highest risk.

Posted on December 6, 2018, at 1:34 p.m. ET

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via

Use the search box or click on the map for information about the nearest fire. Orange shows fire footprints since 2000.

It’s been a record year for wildfires in California. The Camp fire, which tore through the city of Paradise in November, became the deadliest and most destructive in state history, claiming at least 85 lives and destroying almost 19,000 structures. Across the entire state, more than 1.6 million acres have burned.

And it’s not just the Golden State: Wildfire activity has increased since the 1980s across the American West, as climate change drives earlier springs and warmer, drier summers. So if you’re thinking of buying or renting a home, where should you avoid?

It’s impossible to predict exactly when and where a fire will strike. But history provides a guide to the areas at highest risk. The map above shows the federal government’s accumulated data on wildfire footprints from 2000 to today. Click on the map or search an address to find out how close the nearest fire approached, when that was, and the number of acres burned.

“Some places are more fire-prone than others,” Alexandra Syphard, an ecologist with the Conservation Biology Institute, based in San Diego, told BuzzFeed News. “In the near future, those areas are likely to continue to be at higher risk.”

Is your home in the wildland–urban interface?

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via

Use the search box to see if your home lies in the wildland–urban interface, shown in red.

Another risk factor is whether your home is in the high-risk zone where housing and wild vegetation mingles. Between 2000 and 2013, almost 70% of the buildings destroyed by wildfire were in this wildland–urban interface, or WUI, which has been mapped in detail across the lower 48 states by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. What’s more, the WUI grew by 33% in area from 1990 to 2010, as the number of homes within this rural sprawl grew from 30.8 to 43.4 million.

As the map above shows, the WUI is most extensive in the densely populated eastern US, where thankfully wildfires are less frequent. But there’s still plenty of housing in the WUI across the western states.

“This is not only where structures are most at risk, it’s also where fires are most likely to ignite,” Syphard said.

Paradise was a tragedy waiting to happen.

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via USGS GeoMac/Silvis Lab, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fire footprints are in orange; the wildland–urban interface is in red. Toggle fires on and off using the button.

As California fire officials have said, it was always a question of when, not if a wildfire would hit the town of Paradise. As this map shows, it was a prime example of development in the WUI, growing from just over 8,000 people in 1960 to more than 26,500 when disaster struck. The area nearby had also been hit by several previous wildfires.

Some of the riskiest places are near Southern California’s biggest cities.

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via USGS GeoMac/Silvis Lab, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fire footprints are in orange; the wildland–urban interface is in red. Toggle fires on and off using the button.

This view of coastal Southern California from above the Pacific shows how the region’s major cities are surrounded by the scars of fires that have burned over the past two decades. From this perspective, the Woolsey fire that raged near Malibu in November, and the massive Thomas fire, which burned between Ventura and Santa Barbara from December 2017 into the new year, are just part of a mosaic that extends through the mix of chaparral shrubland and residential development that surrounds the region’s coastal cities.

Here, climate change has been less of a factor than in high-elevation forests in Northern California and across into the Mountain West. Dangerous conditions come each fall, as warm and dry Santa Ana winds blow from the desert interior out to sea. The growing number of homes getting destroyed reflects not only increasing development in the WUI, putting people in the line of advancing fires, but also ignitions from power lines and other human infrastructure.

It’s a vicious cycle, made worse by the gradual replacement of native shrubs with highly flammable introduced European grasses.

View fires across the country over the years.

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via USGS GeoMac

Use the slider to view fires for a single year; hover for details of each fire.

According to high estimates, climate change may already have doubled the area of western US forests that have burned since the 1980s. But bad as things are now, experts warn that increasing human presence in the WUI and continuing warming are only going to make matters worse. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released over the Thanksgiving break, the area burned each year across the western US could increase by between two and six times by mid-century — or about the time that someone taking out a 30-year mortgage to buy a new home will pay off the loan.

“Climate change is loading the dice for large fire seasons across western US forests,” climatologist John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho in Moscow told BuzzFeed News by email.

Given the appeal of escaping crowded and increasingly unaffordable cities in California and other western states, nobody expects people to stop settling in areas at high risk of wildfires. But experts say that we need to be aware of the risks and plan accordingly — which means thinking about how to reduce fuels near vulnerable homes, and accepting that insurance may become expensive or hard to obtain.

“I don’t think I’d personally advocate for people to not live in fire-prone regions,” said Abatzoglou, who studies how climate change is affecting wildfires. “However, awareness and preparedness are prerequisites for living with fire.”

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