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Wildfires threaten nearly a third of U.S. residents and buildings

Wildfires threaten nearly a third of U.S. residents and buildings

A new approach to calculating wildfire risk shows more people and places in the US are at risk than previously thought

A highway sign reads: "FIRE ACTIVITY AHEAD," in the foreground, the landscape, sky and sun in the background can be seen shrouded in heavy forest fire smoke, creating a warm, orange hue

A highway warning sign displays a message as the sun behind it is shrouded in thick wildfire smoke on August 15, 2021 near Lakeview, Oregon.

Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images

CLIMATE THREAD | Wildfires threaten nearly a third of U.S. residents and buildings, according to a new government analysis that suggests the risk is greater than previously known.

The Forest Service, working with researchers from Montana, has taken a new approach to measuring wildfire risk, limiting its historical analysis to the 15 years between 2004 and 2018. An earlier analysis looked at conditions over a 34-year period. years ending in 2012.

The narrower and more recent time frame is intended to focus on a period when climate change has particularly affected atmospheric conditions and led to increasing heat, drought and wildfires.


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“We are more accurately reflecting the climate changes we’ve seen in recent years,” said Kelly Pohl, associate director at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics, which released the findings to the Forest Service and Pyrologix, a company that creates wildfire risk models.

The Forest Service released its new assessment Wednesday as an update to its 2020 risk estimates. Wildfirerisk.org identifies the most fire-prone areas of the county and helps guide wildfire mitigation efforts.

The updated analysis shows that more than 115 million people and 48 million buildings are located in counties at high risk of wildfire. Underserved communities are disproportionately exposed.

Nearly 75 percent of tribal residents are in counties at high wildfire risk. And nearly 20 percent of high-risk counties have a large number of mobile homes, the analysis found.

“This update tells us that the nation’s wildfire crisis has the potential to impact more people than we initially thought,” Jeff Marsolais, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said in a statement.

“This finding at the highest level is a big deal,” Pohl said. “We really need to think about solutions at the community level in many parts of the country.”

The update comes as wildfire seasons become longer, more destructive and expensive.

A 2023 analysis by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress broadly analyzed wildfire damage, including the effect on property values, real estate, watersheds, timber, insurers and more. Wildfires cost the US $394 to $893 billion a year, the commission concluded.

The damage is caused by overgrown forests, development in high-risk areas and rising temperatures, which worsen the hot, dry conditions that cause wildfires to start and spread.

States, insurance companies and modeling companies are trying to improve wildfire modeling and data to identify where fires can ignite, spread and cause the most destruction.

The information could help decide how to spend the billions of dollars the federal government and some states have provided to combat it. The bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act together include about $4 billion for “hazardous fuels reduction.”

The First Street Foundation, a New York nonprofit focused on physical climate risk data, has done its own advanced modeling. The research group unveiled its national fire risk assessment in 2022, which found that 26 million U.S. properties currently faced moderate wildfire risk — and that figure could rise to 35 million by 2052.

Colorado revised its own outdated fire risk map in 2023 to account for development in high-risk areas, as well as a pine beetle epidemic that has left 3 million acres of dead, flammable trees. Officials said the changes would help communities prepare for future fires.

The Forest Service has made several changes to its wildfire risk tool and has limited modeling to 15 years.

The new version includes updated data on where houses and buildings are located and what types of trees, shrubs and grasses are present in different landscapes. The changes help map the risk of “low-probability, high-impact events like the ones we’ve seen recently in parts of the country like the Pacific Northwest,” Headwaters’ Pohl said. “And we can better represent how embers can spread wildfires in communities.”

The newly released tool shows that more than 60 percent of counties in both Oregon and Washington are at high wildfire risk, up from 47 percent in the Forest Service’s 2020 estimate.

Wildfirerisk.org now includes features to help communities better understand and respond to the threat of wildfire.

One example, which Pohl called a “vulnerable population section,” lets users identify neighborhoods that may have difficulty preparing for or responding to wildfires due to demographics. The neighborhoods may have a large number of residents who are non-English speaking or non-English speaking. have cars. Local officials may decide to translate disaster communications into different languages ​​or adjust emergency evacuation plans.

“These are really useful tools at the federal level to think about where the risk is greatest across the country,” Pohl said. “But also within a community, to think about the different neighborhoods that may experience wildfire preparation and recovery differently.”

Reprinted from E&E news courtesy of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environmental professionals.

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