A New York City-based research nonprofit has developed a tool to quantify the risk residential properties face from wildfires, such as those currently ravaging the West Coast.
The First Street Foundation Wildfire Model predicts that 71.8 million homes currently have some level of risk and due to climate change, that number will increase to 79.8 million homes by 2050 — an uptick of 11.1%. The organization also has a tool to assess flood risk.
First Street’s free online model supports residential homes and apartment buildings. When attempting to search an address that is mixed-use or commercial, the model provides a message identifying the property as such and will not currently identify a risk level.
Trees can normally regenerate due to the scatterings of pine cones by the wind or with the help of animals. But when a fire burns too hot, there is no way for seeds to survive and trees to grow back naturally in charred soils. To help forests rebuild, communities are turning to technological alternatives — including drones.
The western United States this century is facing a greatly heightened risk of heavy rains inundating areas that were recently scarred by wildfires, new research warns. Such events can cause significant destruction, including debris flows, mudslides, and flash floods, because the denuded landscape cannot easily contain the drenching moisture.
Nearly 20 different regions across the Western U.S. face rising danger from wildfires, a new study finds, demonstrating the challenge the Biden administration faces as it starts a 10-year, multibillion-dollar investment in reducing the country’s fire risk.
The areas, where zones of particularly vulnerable vegetation meet those of especially fierce drought, spread across huge swaths of the country.
People living in the western U.S. have been concerned about wildfires for a long time, but the past two years have left many of them fearful and questioning whether any solutions to the fire crisis truly exist.
The Dixie Fire in the Sierra Nevada burned nearly 1 million acres in 2021, including almost the entire community of Greenville, California. Then strong winds near Lake Tahoe sent the Caldor Fire racing toward homes, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people – including one of us. They followed destructive wildfires in 2020 in California, and Colorado and Oregon also saw devastating fires in the past two years.
A new 10-year plan announced by the U.S. Forest Service in early 2022 aims to change that. It outlines an ambitious strategy, but Congress will now have to follow through with enough funding to carry it out.
The fires spread quickly over vast areas, but both burned less severely in areas with proactive forest restoration and fuels management projects, including near South Lake Tahoe and near Quincy.
Fuels reduction projects include thinning out trees, burning off woody debris and reducing “ladder fuels” like small trees and brush that can allow fire to reach the tree canopy. Forest restoration projects focus on forest structure, density and composition as well as reducing fuels.
The Forest Service’s new 10-year plan sets a goal to treat as much as 50 million additional acres across the West over 10 years, just under 80,000 square miles. For comparison, the Forest Service treats around 2 million to 3 million acres a year now.
The first priorities in the plan are high-risk areas where communities have been threatened by out-of-control fires, including in the Sierra Nevada in California, the eastern side of the Rockies in Colorado and parts of the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.
The Forest Service already has a “shared stewardship” agreement with California, reached in 2020, aiming to treat 1 million acres annually by 2025. Though, research indicates that current levels of treatment are closer to 30% of that million-acre goal. Remember that 1 million acres is about how much the Dixie Fire burned.
A lingering question is how the 10-year plan will be paid for, considering that it will require a workforce larger than the U.S. has seen in decades.
So far, Congress has approved additional funding through the 2021 infrastructure bill, which included about $655 million a year for fire management for five years. That’s in addition to the Forest Service’s annual funding for this work, which was about $260 million this fiscal year.
But in California alone, a group of scientists, land managers and former government leaders has recommended spending $5 billion a year on proactive management, roughly equivalent to what was spent to suppress fires in the state in 2020. Known as “The Venado Declaration,” this proposal, championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and former Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, calls for addressing forest resiliency on every acre and acknowledges that more than just funding is needed. It also discusses building infrastructure and a workforce and reevaluating regulatory barriers.
Four key steps
To manage fires in an era of climate change, when drier, hotter weather creates ideal conditions for burning, experts estimate that the area treated for fuels reduction needs to increase by at least an order of magnitude. We believe government needs to accomplish these four things to succeed:
1) Drastically increase funding and staff for agencies’ fuels reduction projects, as well as outreach, cost-sharing and technical assistance for private forestland owners. The new plan is a good start. Funding more federal and state agency positions would add forest restoration capacity for the long term. The Biden administration’s proposal for a Civilian Climate Corps could also bring in more young workers.
2) Reduce regulations on forest and fuels management efforts for both public and private land. While California and the federal government have made recent strides to streamline regulations, land management agencies need to acknowledge the biggest risk is doing nothing. Agencies need to plan larger restoration projects and drastically cut the time needed to implement them.
3) Invest in communities’ capacity to carry out local forest restoration work by providing long-term support to local organizations that provide outreach, technical assistance and project coordination services. Funding restoration through competitive grants makes development of long-term community capacity challenging at best. The new plan’s inclusion of state, tribal and private lands is an opportunity for partnerships.
Amid a changing climate, we will have to learn to coexist with wildfires in the U.S. West. This will require concerted action and a cultural shift in how we view and manage our forests and communities to be resilient.
This is an updated version of an article first published on Oct. 13, 2021.
From record-breaking heat waves to massive wildfires, floods and long-running drought, the impacts of climate change across the U.S. have been impossible to ignore in 2021. While conditions vary from one region to another, it is clear that no part of the nation will be unaffected.
I work in Southern California, a region long famous for its temperate climate. For the past two years, my colleagues and I at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research have been surveying a representative internet panel of 1,800 Los Angeles County residents to better understand how social and environmental factors such as climate change affect people’s well-being.
For areas of the U.S. that have yet to feel the full force of rising temperatures, the results of our latest USC Dornsife-Union Bank LABarometersurvey show what kinds of challenges they can expect. In Los Angeles the climate crisis is already reducing the quality of residents’ lives. And our findings clearly show that its impacts are falling disproportionately on residents who are young, poor, Black and Hispanic.
Growing numbers are staying indoors
The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the only threat to public health in 2021. Wildfires burned more than 6.8 million acres across the U.S. after consuming 10.1 million acres in 2020. And our data shows that many L.A. residents stay home when wildfires threaten air quality in their neighborhoods.
According to our survey, 50% of Angelenos avoided going outdoors at some point between July 2020 and July 2021 because of air quality concerns from a nearby wildfire, up from 30% in the previous year. We expect this number will continue to grow as wildfires increase in frequency and size. A recent climate vulnerability assessment predicts that by 2050 there could be a 40% increase in area burned by wildfires in Los Angeles.
Large-scale wildfires have become annual events in California in an ever-expanding fire season. Los Angeles residents have received warnings about the health risks of wildfire smoke, which can cause lung damage and worsen cardiovascular problems like heart disease and stroke with heavy or long-term exposure. These health risks may explain why Angelenos are increasingly curtailing outdoor activities when wildfires are burning.
By 2050, Los Angeles expects up to a tenfold increase in the frequency of extreme heat waves. This equates to over five heat waves per year compared with the historic average of less than one per year.
This forecast poses troubling implications for health equity in the region. According to our data, vulnerability to heat is unequally distributed across the population. Black residents are significantly more likely than white residents to be exposed to heat at home and at work.
At home, rates of access to air conditioning are heavily stratified by race. Asian and white residents are the most likely to report having air conditioning in their homes (90% and 87%, respectively), while Black residents are the least likely to have this amenity (66%).
At work, approximately 27% of Black residents report working outdoors without cover – for example, from a tent or booth – compared with 18% of Hispanic residents, 15% of white residents and 10% of Asian residents. Prolonged heat exposure, especially without the opportunity to cool off overnight, is a serious health risk.
Expensive and stressful
Our survey also reveals that climate change is affecting Angelenos’ financial and mental health. According to self-reported data, nearly 10% of residents saw an increase in their utility expenses, 4.4% lost income and 3.1% suffered health problems because of a natural disaster such as wildfire, flooding or extreme heat in the past year.
Living in Los Angeles has never been risk-free: Earthquakes are a well-known hazard here and elsewhere in California. But climate change is magnifying other threats, such as wildfires, droughts and heat waves. All of these events can damage property, threaten residents’ health and safety and force some people from their homes.
Natural disasters can also trigger various forms of psychological distress. Over 1 in 4 Angelenos reported experiencing some form psychological distress over the past 12 months because of a natural disaster, including anxiety, depression, prolonged fatigue or high stress.
These mental health impacts were most pronounced among young and low-income residents. Angelenos with a household income below $30,000 per year were almost twice as likely as those with higher incomes to report psychological distress due to a natural disaster. Likewise, compared with Angelenos ages 60 and older, more than twice as many Angelenos under age 40 reported experiences of psychological distress due to a natural disaster.
The climate crisis is a social and economic crisis
As cities and counties around the country brace for more extreme climate conditions, our findings in Los Angeles show that extreme weather can have serious social and economic impacts. In the span of just the past year, climate change has left millions of Americans isolated and financially or psychologically distressed.
Adapting to these risks isn’t just a matter of weatherizing homes and educating the public about climate hazards. Local governments also need to prepare for inevitable strains on social and health care systems as climate conditions make it increasingly difficult for people to meet their most basic needs.
Record-high temperatures and powerful winds have sparked a series of unusual December prairie fires in Montana, one of a series of late-season fires across the country amid an unusually warm approach to the winter season.
According to the nonprofit CarbonPlan, which analyzes the scientific integrity of carbon offsets, at least six large sites in California, Oregon, and Washington have burned over the past five years. The California Air Resources Board, which oversees the state’s offset market, has an insurance system designed to protect against such disasters. But a growing number of forest ecologists, climate modelers, and policy experts argue that the insurance system, known as the “buffer pool,” was never based on sound science — and that now, as forests burn more severely and frequently across the West, it could be in danger of collapse.