Weeks after wildfires in California decimated entire cities, killed 88 people and wreaked billions of dollars in losses, an investigation has revealed that an increasing number of Americans are living in and moving to areas facing serious fire risks.
Even with the growing risks, millions of more Americans have flocked to wildland-urban interfaces — near forests, grasslands and scrublands that face serious wildfire dangers — in the last 20 years, according to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
From 1990 to 2010, the number of new homes built in high-risk wildland-urban interfaces has grown 41 percent, from 30.8 to 43.4 million homes, the data show. Furthermore, 25 million more people live in these wildland-urban areas in 2010 than in 1990, which increases the chances of human-caused wildfires and deaths.
“When houses are built close to forests or other types of natural vegetation, they pose two problems related to wildfires,” wrote the team of researchers for the National Academy of Sciences. “First, there will be more wildfires due to human ignitions. Second, wildfires that occur will pose a greater risk to lives and homes, they will be hard to fight, and letting natural fires burn becomes impossible. … [Wildland-urban interface] growth often results in more wildfire ignitions, putting more lives and houses at risk. Wildfire problems will not abate if recent housing growth trends continue.”
The most recent wildfires in California — the Camp and Woolsey fires, which are the states most deadly — reveal the destructive power of these events. The Northern California Camp wildfire is estimated to have caused between $11 and $13 billion in losses. In southern California, the Woolsey Fire is estimated to have caused $4 to $6 billion in damages, according to CoreLogic, a real estate analytics company.
Often times, standard homeowners’ insurance policies cover fire losses, however, it’s important for investors to make certain before 2019’s wildfire season begins.
These wildfires have been a personal and financial tragedy for many families,” said 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.”
Researchers note that the growth of wildland-urban interfaces isn’t slowing, which means more deadly fires could become more common.
“Rampant [wildland-urban interface] growth demonstrates that the social and economic factors that together propel [wildland-urban interfaces] growth are strong,” researchers wrote. “[These] areas are attractive places to live because of affordability and ready access to natural settings and recreation. As [wildland-urban interfaces] areas attract new residents, the number of houses per capita often increases as well, due to increasing rates of seasonal homeownership and declining family size. Indeed, despite the economic downturn after 2008, the absolute number of houses built in the WUI, and in the United States as a whole, was higher between 2000 and 2010 than between 1990 and 2000. Demographic trends do not suggest slower future [wildland-urban interfaces] growth.”
The graph below shows that, while the growth of wildland-urban interfaces differed among states, it’s grown considerably in recent decades.