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Rising number of U.S. homes at risk from wildfires -report

Shasta County firefighters Zach Lacy (L) and Bob Baker spray water on a home burnt by the Clover Fire in Happy Valley, California September
Shasta County firefighters Zach Lacy (L) and Bob Baker spray water on a home burnt by the Clover Fire in Happy Valley, California September

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - The number of homes at risk from wildfires in western U.S. states jumped 62 percent in the past year as more properties were developed in fire-prone areas, according to a report released on Thursday.

About 1.2 million homes valued at more than $189 billion are at high to very high risk from wildfires in California and a dozen other Western states, according to CoreLogic Inc, a data and analytics company.

The study comes near the close of a 2013 fire season that saw the most destructive fire in Colorado history, marked one of the largest burns on record in California, caused the deaths of 33 firefighters and strained U.S. Forest Service firefighting resources.

The report highlighted a boom in construction in areas located between towns and hinterlands as a key new risk factor that drove the number of homes at risk up sharply from last year when the report estimated 740,000 homes worth $136 billion were threatened.

"As cities grow in population, they tend to expand outward into formerly undeveloped wild land areas," Thomas Jeffery, senior hazard scientist for CoreLogic Spatial Solutions said in a statement.

"Wind-blown embers can travel ... and ignite homes located far away from an actual fire," he said.

From 1990 to 2008, there were close to 17 million new homes built in the United States. About 10 million were located in areas "potentially exposed to higher wildfire-risk zones," the report said.

In the tally of homes at very high risk from wildfire, Colorado led with 83,174, followed by California with 72,796 and Texas at 54,463, according to the report.

The Los Angeles area contained the most single-family dwellings at significant risk from wildfires, or 60,000 homes worth $8.3 billion, the report shows.

The insurance industry reviews studies like the one produced annually by CoreLogic, but guidelines for rating homes and underwriting risk for wildfires varies, said Carole Walker, head of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association near Denver.

In Colorado, where cities and towns frequently abut forest and grasslands, a state task force is recommending property owners in fire-prone areas bear more of the burden to reduce losses from wildfires.

In a September 30 report, the panel said local governments should establish risk levels for outlying developments and require homeowners to take measures such as clearing trees near structures to lessen fire dangers.

The insurance industry is backing efforts to place greater responsibility on property owners, along with stricter building codes, for homes in fire-prone areas, said Walker.

"The scary part is these fires aren't going to stop. There's no magic bullet. We have to look at larger solutions," she said.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Tim Gaynor, Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)

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