Is Your Home At Risk Of Wildfire In A Changing Climate? 6 Questions To Ask

Oct 18, 2020
Originally published on October 19, 2020 3:41 pm

Bigger and more destructive wildfires are on the rise in the U.S., driven in great part by a changing climate. More than 40 million Americans live in high-risk zones because towns have increasingly expanded into fire-prone landscapes. Even if a home seems far from forests or grasslands, wildfires can easily spread into towns and suburbs, as thousands of homeowners in the West have experienced recently in deadly fires.

Wildfires are a natural ecological process affecting American landscapes, but the warming climate increases the risk of bigger, more destructive blazes. Hotter temperatures dry out vegetation, making it more susceptible to burning. Overall, fire seasons are getting longer.

Homeowners can do a lot to improve the chances that a building will survive a wildfire. The key is knowing your risk and keeping up with annual maintenance.

So, whether you're moving or already living somewhere, how do you find out your wildfire risk? NPR spoke to fire experts and homeowners to determine the right questions to ask. For a downloadable PDF, click here.


1. Has this building ever burned in a wildfire?

Why ShOuld I ask this?

If an area has burned before, chances are good that a wildfire could happen again. Many landscapes have vegetation that is adapted to regular burning, such as pine forests or grasslands. Even homes far from wildlands are at risk, because wildfires can easily spread from building to building.

Where to start?

Do some research about your town to see what notable wildfires have burned in the area. Check with your local zoning office to see what building permits have been filed for the property, which could help you understand if it was rebuilt at any time. But don't forget that structure fires can occur for different reasons.


2. What's the risk of this neighborhood burning in a wildfire?

Why Should I ask this?

Fire is a natural part of many regions. Particularly in the Western U.S., native vegetation is accustomed to regular fires. Most wildfires now are started by people, however, and hot weather and high winds increase the chances of extreme fires. Some neighborhoods are also very vulnerable. Are the buildings older or made of wood? Is there a lot of flammable vegetation near them?

Where to start?

This searchable U.S. Forest Service map shows wildfire risk across the country. Several states, like California and Colorado, have their own maps as well. But many don't capture detail down to individual neighborhoods and homes. So check with your local fire station, agency or community wildfire group, known as a fire safe council, fire adapted community or Firewise community.


3. What could make this building vulnerable, and what could be done to make it safer?

Why Should I ask this?

In a wildfire, most homes aren't burned down by the advancing fire. Instead, they're ignited by embers blown far ahead of the fire front. Those embers can land on dry plants or a wood roof or even be sucked inside the house through an attic vent. The good news is that low-cost home improvements can make a difference.

Where to start?

First, look at the vegetation. A building should have defensible space, which is a zone around the house with limited flammable vegetation. Some states, counties or homeowners associations have specific rules about maintaining it. Check out these how-to guides from California, Idaho and Colorado.

Second, look at the house itself. A wood roof, exposed eaves and open attic vents increase the chances of ignition. Check out online guides about what to fix, or ask for some help. Some fire departments, county governments or community fire councils offer in-person inspections.


4. Is it challenging to get insurance here because of the wildfire risk?

Why Should I ask this?

As wildfires have become increasingly destructive and costly, some insurance companies have raised the prices of policies in risky areas or have simply stopped offering them altogether. The cost could significantly add to your mortgage or rent, or you may find yourself uninsured.

Where to start?

Shop around. Check with different companies about what they offer in your area and what their policies cover. In recent wildfires, many homeowners found they were underinsured. Ask the seller, real estate agent or neighbors if they've seen insurance cancellations in the area. For renters, ask the landlord if their policy will cover you.


5. What is the seller or landlord required to disclose to me?

Why Should I ask this?

Know what information you're entitled to.

Where to start?

Ask away, but few states have requirements for wildfire risk disclosure. In California, sellers must fill out a natural hazard disclosure form, and the state recently passed a law that will require new disclosures in the future.


6. What's being done to make this neighborhood safer?

Why Should I ask this?

Fire experts often say: Your home is only as safe as your neighbor's is. Because of the way fire spreads, all residents in a neighborhood need to prepare for wildfires and maintain their buildings. Is your city or region examining how it's vulnerable? Is there an evacuation plan to safely get people out?

Where to start?

Check with your local fire department or fire agency. Many counties must release reports about emergency preparedness, often known as "hazard mitigation plans" or "community wildfire protection plans."

Some communities are also working proactively to reduce their risk by working with homeowners and doing larger-scale vegetation management projects. Look for your fire safe council, fire adapted community or Firewise community.

We want to hear from you

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Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tens of thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed in floods or wildfires this year. Many of the people who lived in them had no idea they were in harm's way. NPR's climate team has been investigating why it's so hard for many people to get information about flood and wildfire risk when they move and what you can do to protect yourself. Lauren Sommer and Rebecca Hersher are here to talk about their findings. Hello, you two.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hey.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This has been a record-breaking year for hurricanes and wildfires, so obviously flood and fire damage is big news. But why did you want to focus on what individual residents knew about their risk - Lauren?

SOMMER: Yeah, every year now, Rebecca and I stand with people in the wreckage of their homes, and they tell us they had no idea this was possible. They didn't know their area could flood. They didn't know it was prone to fire. And climate change is making these disasters more extreme.

HERSHER: And, you know, because people don't know about these risks, a lot of the people, they didn't have adequate insurance, they'll tell us, or their savings were wiped out or they didn't have a plan to evacuate and ended up in physical danger. So we really wanted to know why is this happening and why don't people know more about their risk? Are there things people can do to learn more?

SHAPIRO: So let's answer those questions, starting with fire. Lauren, you have been covering the wildfires out in the West. What sense do homeowners there have of the risk that they faced?

SOMMER: Well, California is no stranger to wildfires, right? But for many people, there's still a sense that natural disasters happen to other people. Just last week, I was with a family in Napa Valley who had to evacuate from a wildfire. Thea Kendall-Osborne was returning to see her home for the first time with her husband, Kelvin.

THEA KENDALL-OSBORNE: We moved here just in time for the 2017 fires. That was an eye-opener.

KELVIN OSBORNE: So I think we evacuated three times since we've been here.

SOMMER: This time, their two-story house burned to the ground. There was basically nothing left.

SHAPIRO: So having dealt with fire repeatedly, what were they warned about the risk before they bought their home?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, their home is in an area of high fire risk. And when they got their disclosure packet, you know, with all the information about the house, there were a few sentences on one page that mentioned the potential risk. But if you've bought a home, you know there's a ton of paperwork, and it's really easy to miss it. Thea actually grew up in Southern California, so she remembers fires from her childhood, but then she moved away.

KENDALL-OSBORNE: We've been gone for 21 years, so we came back and didn't even think - it didn't occur to us.

SOMMER: Even that minimal disclosure they got, those few sentences about fire risk, is rare. California is only one of two states in the West that require any wildfire disclosure.

SHAPIRO: And then let's talk a little bit about flooding. Rebecca, is it the same situation where not much disclosure is required?

HERSHER: So flooding is a little bit different. There are 29 states with laws that require some flood risk disclosure during real estate transactions. So that sounds like a lot, right? But most of those laws don't work very well. And there are a bunch of reasons for that. They might allow for the information to be provided really late, like after you've made a deposit on a house, for example. Maybe the disclosure form, like Lauren just described, it's just one piece of paper in a massive stack of inspections and other stuff that people get when they buy a house. And experts say that it's likely a lot of people are totally missing the form, like, altogether. And then the other problem is a little thornier. Flood and fire risk is kind of complicated, but the laws are really black and white in a lot of places. Like, a state law might require that people be told if their house is in an official floodplain, for example, which is better than nothing when it comes to information. But floodwater doesn't stop at the hard edges of a designated floodplain, right? A lot of flooding happens outside the floodplain.

SHAPIRO: And so if a homeowner is told that their house is not in a floodplain, is that going to give them a false sense of security?

HERSHER: Exactly. So here's an example that I think totally illustrates it. I met this family in Louisiana this year, the Barilleaus. They bought a house outside Baton Rouge. They used all their savings to do it, and they knew flooding was an issue. So they checked the flood map. And the house, it was on one little plot of land surrounded by a floodplain. Here's how Loren Barilleau put it.

LOREN BARILLEAU: I never wanted to live in a flood zone. And that was like we didn't buy in a flood zone because we don't want to be flooded.

HERSHER: And because the map said they weren't in an official floodplain, in a flood zone, they didn't buy flood insurance. So then - you guessed it - the house flooded, like, 18 inches of water inside. And they were displaced for more than a year. They had two small kids at the time. It strained their finances. It was really bad.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like in all of these examples, whatever small amount of information families might have received just was not adequate. What can people do to understand their risk better? Let's start with, flooding, Rebecca.

HERSHER: Right. So one thing you can do is you can actually look up your listing if you're buying or if you're renting on realtor.com. So far, it's the only real estate listing site that includes flood risk information in every listing. And that does include both houses for sale and at least some buildings that are for rent. I should say there's no fire information, only flood info. It's also a good idea to ask neighbors in the area if the area has flooded in the past. Places that have flooded before are likely to flood again. And with climate change, that flooding may be significantly worse now than it was before. And the third thing is it's a good idea to ask neighbors if they had flood insurance or ask an insurance agent for a quote if you know that there's a chance of flooding. Flood insurance can be expensive, and a lot of people don't budget for it because they don't know they need it.

SHAPIRO: So that speaks to people buying new properties at risk of flooding. What about people who already live somewhere and the risk of wildfire? Is there anything that people can do if they've already purchased a home, Lauren?

SOMMER: Yeah. For wildfires, there's a lot you can do and should do every year. You know, first, plan for evacuation, have a bag packed and have those irreplaceable items ready to go. And, two, you can make a house more fire resistant. You can clear out the dry and flammable brush, trim tree limbs, even cover your attic vents with mesh to prevent embers from coming in. You know, all those things increase the chances a home will survive. And some cities and counties have programs that actually provide home inspections to help homeowners figure out what to do. And fire experts say that's actually the most effective way to help people understand their risk.

SHAPIRO: This seems like a lot of work for something that may not ever happen. So what's your answer to people who might feel kind of overwhelmed by what you're describing?

SOMMER: Yeah, right. I mean, it's not your fault that all of this information isn't easier to get and easier to use. And, you know, although asking the right questions can help you understand your risk better, the underlying problem is still that a lot of homes are located in dangerous places. And because climate change is making disaster risk worse, it's going to take more than just homeowners to solve this. A lot of decisions, like where homes are built and how they're built, are made by state and local governments. And if they aren't taking flood and fire risk into account, you know, homeowners and renters are the ones who end up paying.

SHAPIRO: That's Lauren Sommer and Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team. You can find a list of six questions to ask about floods and fires, along with some powerful photojournalism, at our website, npr.org. And we will be hearing more of their reporting throughout the week. Lauren and Rebecca, thank you both.

SOMMER: Thanks.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.