The High Cost of Wildfires

According to the federal government, so far this year more than 2 million acres have been burned by nearly 10,000 wildfires in the United States. The most damaging so far has been the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, which destroyed more than 380 homes. In 2011, more than 74,000 fires burned 8.7 million acres.

The cost to homeowners - and insurers - of these fires is the subject of a new report from research firm CoreLogic, which identifies more than 740,000 residences across 13 western U.S. states at high or very high risk of wildfire damage. The total property value exceeds $136 billion.

Between 1990 and 2008, some 10 million of the 17 million new homes built in the U.S. were constructed in what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), an area a high risk from wildfire:

As residential development has expanded into formerly undeveloped wildlands, the transitional area between the two, known as the Wildfire Urban Interface, has become exceptionally vulnerable to wildfire. Approximately 40 percent of homes in the U.S. are located in that zone, and wind-blown embers are capable of igniting homes located hundreds, or even thousands of feet away from an actual fire.

The three states with the most homes in CoreLogic's "Very High Risk" category are California, Colorado and Texas. The value of the property at Very High Risk in the three states is $9.5 billion in California, $12.5 billion in Colorado and $3.4 billion in Texas.

According to the CoreLogic report, fewer than 1,000 homes per year on average were destroyed by wildfires in the 1990s. From 2000 to 2008, the averaged jumped to more than 2,500 per year. As more homes are built in the WUI, more homes are inevitably destroyed by wildfire.

And it doesn't take a large fire to cause a lot of damage. More than 97% of all wildfires are extinguished before they cover 10 acres.

Wildfire risk in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, San Diego, Boulder and Austin is also very high. In Los Angeles alone some $9.5 billion worth of property is at High or Very High risk of wildfire.

As the report points out, wildfire is the only natural disaster than may be caused by human behavior. And that is not just human carelessness, but deeper incursions into the WUI, which puts more lives and more properties at risk every year.

The CoreLogic report is available here.

Paul Ausick

Filed under: 24/7 Wall St. Wire, Housing, Research