Photos of the ashen remains of homes, hotels, and historic sites, blackened and burned by the Maui wildfires, make clear the scale of loss from such a tragedy. So far experts have estimated $3.2 billion worth of property damage. And that’s not to forget the more than 110 people who died, and the many others who are now without a home. It’s a stark reminder of the cost climate change is already having.
But unless swift action is taken to dramatically cut emissions and transition to clean energy, more homes across the U.S. may find themselves in the path of wildfires. And that can have a big impact on the worth of someone’s home.
The amount of property in the United States at risk from a 5% or greater chance of being impacted by a wildfire over the course of a 30-year mortgage is expected to more than double by 2050, according to a new study published Aug. 17 by a team of researchers from the University of Utah, Boston University, and Swansea University in Wales.
Around 3.3 million U.S. households—equal to over $11 billion worth of property—will be at risk of wildfire damage each year over the next three decades, researchers estimate. That’s compared to roughly 1.1 million households, or $4 billion in property value, that the study found to have been exposed annually between 2000 and 2018.
As climate change worsens, that number is only going to go up. With moderate levels of climate action, the amount of property at risk from wildfire will increase five-fold between 2070 and the end of the century compared to current levels. That represents an annual $22 billion worth of exposed property. In a scenario of runaway climate change and uncurbed fossil fuel use, 10 times the amount of property—$45 billion worth—is at risk each year by the end of the century.
“There are already substantial climate-related disturbance risks to property in the U.S.,” says lead author William Anderegg, director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the University of Utah. “And those are rising with climate change, and likely to rise a lot in high emission scenarios, and rise much less if we get serious and tackle climate change aggressively.”
While the numbers may appear substantial, they’re actually a conservative estimate. “What we did in the study was basically hold today's property values constant,” explains Anderegg, “and that assumes that people aren't moving around and building in more risky locations or fleeing risky locations and building in less risky locations.”
Property values, however, continue to increase. And more building is happening at the wildland-urban interface—where nature meets communities; between 1990 and 2010 the number of new houses built in areas encroaching on undeveloped areas jumped 41%. And according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the wildland-urban interface is growing at a rate of 2 million acres per year. As these trends continue, that means more people, and property, are at risk of climate-fueled wildfires.
“What’s interesting is that people are drawn to those environments because of the amenities associated with forest resources,” said study co-author Timothy Collins, a geography professor at the University of Utah, in a statement. “This is where you’re seeing the high value of these lands, like California—areas that are identified as wildland-urban interface—are some of the fastest growing landscapes in terms of residential development.”
The study didn’t look only at the impact of wildfires on property value. It also analyzed two other forest disturbances being driven by climate change: drought and tree-killing beetles. While these two other types of risk don’t present the “fast moving, acute risk to structures and lives” that wildfires do, says Anderegg, they still can have a substantial economic impact. A 2010 study found that property values in Colorado—which has been plagued by mountain pine beetles for decades—dropped by between $17 to $648 for every tree killed within a 0.6 mile radius (the closer to the property the tree died, the greater the economic impact was). The drop in value partly reflected the sudden increased risk to wildfires.
To a degree, the interplay between these three types of disturbances can increase the overall damage to forests and neighborhood trees—eventually hurting property values. Drought inevitably can drive higher fire risk, while beetles ravaging trees can kill them, sometimes making them more prone to wildfire.
Read more: Why the Maui Wildfires Were So Deadly
Looking at the combination of all three factors, “really high levels of risk concentrated in the western U.S. and the southwest,” says Anderegg. “California in particular jumps out as the intersection of all of these risks.”
But it’s not just the west that needs to worry. Overtime, other regions—mainly the Great Lakes and the southeast—will become increasingly vulnerable, particularly to wildfire.
And while the study didn’t include Hawaii (or Alaska) in its analysis, there are still important lessons to be drawn for any state, says Anderegg: “One thing we need to learn is to really plan ahead and to be using the best available science and tools to assess risk, prepare for risk, and really have warning systems and community planning for these risks in place.”
The good news is there are already many solutions available to help with this planning, along with ways of rethinking building patterns and design to reduce risk along the wildland-urban interface, he says. These are “separate from actually tackling climate change,” he notes, before adding that ultimately “we really need to do both.”
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