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

Destructive wildfires are on the rise in the United States. More than 40 million Americans live in zones at high risk because towns and cities have increasingly expanded into fire-prone landscapes.
Destructive wildfires are on the rise in the United States. More than 40 million Americans live in zones at high risk because towns and cities have increasingly expanded into fire-prone landscapes.

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 only two Western 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

Have you ever tried to get information about the risk of floods or wildfires when moving to a new home? NPR would like to hear about your experience. Share your story in the form below, and a reporter might contact you.

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