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First Street Foundation Assesses Wildfire Risk for Every Home in America

Laguna Niguel, Calif., May 11, 2022 – Firefighters extinguish a wildfire at Coronado Point in Laguna Niguel, Wednesday.

Wally Scali | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Raging wildfires in New Mexico and California could create an ominous prospect for a growing part of America, and not just in the West.

The risk of forest fires is increasing, probably due to global warming, and their destruction is becoming more and more costly. Of the wildfires that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tracked since 1980, 66% of the damage has occurred in the last five years. Insured damage from wildfires last year was $5 billion, according to a Yale University report, marking the seventh consecutive year of insured losses exceeding $2 billion.

Wildfire risk modeling is more important than ever to protect life and property, and new technology from Brooklyn-based nonprofit First Street Foundationdraws up a threat map taking into account the characteristics of each house.

First Street uses everything from property tax data to satellite imagery and assigns a forest fire risk assessment This depends on the type of structure, type of roof, weather, and exposure to natural fuel sources such as trees and grass.

“We calculate the risk of every single property and structure across the country, whether it’s a commercial building or a private home,” said Matthew Eby, founder and CEO of the First Street Foundation. “From this you can see that one house can have the same chance of being caught in a wildfire, but much more prone to burning.”

Some houses may be more vulnerable due to their building materials, the protected space around them, or the type of roof, for example. The company models the immediate risk to American homes and then adjusts to projected climate change.

“Then we can use supercomputers to simulate 100 million wildfire scenarios today, and then another 100 million scenarios in 30 years with predictable weather patterns,” Eby said.

First Street gives each home a unique score and unique risk exposure. He did the same for water threats, working with realtor.com put a flood estimate for each property on a home sales website. This feature is now the second most popular card on Realtor.com, behind the school district’s K-12 performance data.

“The response to the flood has been overwhelmingly positive. It really helps to make informed decisions and understand what it means to protect your home,” said Sarah Brinton, lead project manager at Realtor.com.

Potential buyers and homeowners who find their flood and fire ratings on Realtor.com can click the link for more information on the First Street website to find out how best to protect their homes.

“We see tens of millions of impressions every month on our flood factor data,” Eby said.

According to a recent survey conducted by Realtor.com and analytics company HarrisX, over 71% of recent homebuyers considered natural disasters in their choice of residence. About half of the respondents said they were more concerned about natural disasters today than they were five years ago.

The First Street fire model pays special attention to what it calls the “urban wilderness interface” where residential development abuts wooded areas.

At least 10 million properties are assessed somewhere between “serious” and “extreme” wildfire risk, according to First Street. While flood risk rises by about 25% in 30 years, overall wildfire risk doubles and jumps over 200% in places you don’t expect, such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas. .

This change helps explain why big firms like Nuveen Real Estate buy data to justify their investments.

“First Street data helps us to really take a close look at how this will affect the building? And, more importantly, how can we reflect this growing risk in our underwriting?” said Jessica Long, head of sustainability at Nuveen’s US real estate portfolio. “We use the data as part of the screening of new investments and as part of our annual business planning process.”

For homeowners, this information will not only help them when buying a home, but it can also help protect the one they already have. For example, a fire assessment can help report minor changes to reduce that risk, such as landscaping or ventilation adjustments. Experts say it’s much easier to protect a house from a wildfire than from a major flood.

When First Street introduced its flood assessment feature, the data was met with concern that it would lower the value of higher-risk homes. Realtor.com’s Brinton said there were very few complaints, but added: “In some places, we’re seeing homes appreciate somewhat more slowly in high flood risk areas.”


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