Homeowners Are Living Closer to Fire Danger

November 28, 2018

An increasing number of Americans are living in what’s considered wildland-urban interfaces—near forests, grasslands, and scrublands—and it’s putting more homes at risk of fires. Researchers say that wildfires pose the greatest risk to people who live along these wildland-urban interface, which was evident once again with the deadly Camp and Woolsey fires in California this month.

About 25 million more people live in these wildland-urban zones in 2010 compared to 1990, in about 12.7 million more homes over that period. More homes in New England and the California area fall within these regions. In California, about 1 million homes were built in the wildland-urban interface over that period, The New York Times reports. Mixed with climate change and droughts, these areas have become hotter and drier than in the past, which has increased the fire risk.

The recent catastrophic wildfires in California have become the state’s most destructive wildfire ever, burning thousands of homes and properties in the north and south. The deadly northern Camp wildfire is estimated to have caused between $11 billion and $13 billion in losses, while the Woolsey Fire in Southern California is estimated to have caused an additional $4 billion to $6 billion in damages, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data provider.

The estimates take into account losses from fire, smoke, and debris removal from residential and commercial properties. Most standard homeowners’ insurance policies cover fire losses so most homeowners should have some coverage, but rebuilding is typically a long process. Also, demand for shelter is surging for those looking for the limited number of homes or rentals that were unharmed.

“These wildfires have been a personal and financial tragedy for many families,” says Tom Larsen, CoreLogic’s principal of industry solutions. “The proper estimation of the value of a home is critical because often in situations of wildfire, the home is completely lost. A deficient valuation can lead to a situation where homeowners have inadequate funding to replace their home.”

Among 29 wildfires in California between 1970 and 2009, 49 percent of the burned buildings were rebuilt within six years, Miranda H. Mockrin, a research scientist with the United States Forest Service, told The New York Times. “In general for wildfire, as other hazards, there is a big push to sort of return to normal, to encourage rebuilding,” Mockrin says.

California has some of the strictest fire regulations in the nation. Any structure since 1991 built in wildland-urban interfaces “has to be made up of noncombustible materials, noncombustible roof, closed eaves,” Jonathan Cox, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The New York Times. But Cox continues: “We know these lands are dangerous. We know they’re susceptible to fire. How we build on these lands is an important consideration as we move forward.”