Nearly 776,000 homes with a reconstruction cost value of more than $221 billion are at extreme risk of wildfire damage, a new report out Thursday shows.
The 2019 CoreLogic Wildfire Risk Report examines single-family and multifamily residential properties at risk of damage from wildfires in the U.S. The report focuses on 13 Western U.S. states that are most commonly affected by wildfires and have an expectation of property losses.
Last year a there were 8.7 million acres burned in the U.S. by wildfires. California led the way with 1.83 million acres burned. That was followed by Nevada (1 million) and Oregon (898,262).
From 2002 to 2018 Alaska leads with average acres burned (1.62 million), followed by California (710,268), Idaho (586,513), Texas (546,415) and Oregon (486,803), according to the report.
The report breaks down wildfire risk categories into extreme, high, moderate and low. Properties are placed in an extreme risk category when they are most likely to sustain damage or be destroyed during a wildfire event. These homes are often within or near areas with plenty of high-risk fuels.
The high-risk category, the next most dangerous, includes properties that are slightly less likely to be destroyed, but that are still likely to be affected by wildfire events.
The report shows 924,623 residences with a reconstruction cost value of more than $318 billion in the high-risk category.
Reconstruction cost value is calculated based on the total destruction of a residential structure using the combined cost of construction materials as well as equipment and labor.
California’s ranking in the report comes as no surprise.
The last few years have been particularly severe for California wildfires, with 2017 and 2018 being responsible for more wildfire-related property damage than the state has experienced in any two consecutive years of its history, the report shows.
The 2017 Tubbs, part of numerous fires collectively known as the October firestorm, at the time became the most destructive in California history. A total of 5,636 structures were destroyed and 22 deaths occurred in that fire alone. CoreLogic estimates losses from the Tubbs Fire at $5 billion.
Then the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California destroyed 18,804 structures – more than the following 10 most destructive California wildfires combined. CoreLogic estimates the losses from the Camp Fire to total $9.3 billion.
It was also the state’s deadliest fire. One more of 86 people who were killed in the fire was identified in August, bringing the total number of named dead to 81. Three people whose remains were recovered after the wildfire are tentatively identified but have not yet been named by the sheriff’s office. Two of the victims remain unknown.
The California wildfires of 2017-2018, with insured losses of about $33 billion, surprised reinsurers as the losses were outside of the market understanding of the risk, and they affected both property and casualty business lines, according to S&P Global Ratings.
Tom Jeffrey, a senior hazard scientist with CoreLogic and one of the authors on the report, believes California is going to continue to be an area to watch going forward as overcrowding pushes new development into less densely populated areas with more fuel for fires.
“When you look at new homes, you know they’re likely to be built in the high-risk area or close to it,” Jeffrey said. “New homes in these very densely populated areas in Colorado and California, they’re having to push out into those more dangerous high-risk areas.”
The California metro areas of the Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego ranked as the top three high-risk areas, with more than 42% of residences at high-to-extreme wildfire risk.
Other metro areas on that list included: Sacramento, Calif. ($27.5 billion); Austin, Texas ($16.35 billion); San Francisco, Calif. ($16.32 billion); and Denver Colo. ($15.32 billion). Two other Texas cities were on the list: San Antonio ($8.43 billion), and Houston ($6.27 billion).
The heavy losses from wildfires seen in California may have reasons beyond more development in wildfire prone areas.
More experts and reports have emerged to put some of the blame on climate change, where less rainfall and rainfall later in the season has meant drier fuel on the ground in states like California. A report out in July, Observed impacts of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire in California, is one of the latest. It shows California experienced a five‐fold increase in annual burned area from 1972 to 2018.
Fire seasons do seem to “be extending a little bit longer,” acknowledged Jeffrey, who said the CoreLogic report doesn’t look at the impacts of climate change.
High winds and the abundance dry fuels were partly to blame for the Tubbs and Camp fires.
“It really combines to create these large fires that we’ve seen,” Jeffrey said of the conditions. “And the actually sizes of the fires are increasing lately.”
Sheer numbers is yet another contributor to California’s dubious status in CoreLogic’s report.
California and Texas lead the U.S. in the number of residences and reconstruction cost value in the high- and extreme-risk categories combined due to both their larger geographic size and large populations.
Both states contain fuels and terrain that contribute to higher risk classifications and have population centers near high-risk areas, the report states.
Colorado, which has experienced several record-setting fires since 2010, ranks third for the number of homes in both the high and extreme categories.
Jeffrey said that while California wildfires have dominated headlines in the past few years, wildfires in other states not normally considered high wildfire risk have been both numerous and sizeable.
And those states bear watching too, he said.
“What we’ve seen in the last 10 years are wildfire records being set in Washington, in Oregon, in New Mexico,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of fires in areas where it’s high-risk, but not top of mind, like Idaho and Montana. The message is, it’s not just California.”
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