Planning to buy a house in Washington? You may want to check the wildfire risk

Four bedrooms. Two-and-a-half bathrooms. A fenced backyard and a two-car garage. The listing for a blue two-story house in a Wenatchee subdivision includes all the usual details.

But keep scrolling and you’ll find one other metric, too: wildfire risk.

For this $495,000 house on the southern edge of town, that risk is listed as “major.”

“This property has a 10% risk of wildfire over 30 years,” the listing tells prospective buyers. “This property’s risk of wildfire is increasing as conditions become hotter and drier.”

The information now appears alongside flood risk on Realtor.com, one of the country’s largest listing services, the latest sign of the new reality wrought by climate change and worsening fire seasons.

The data comes from the New York-based nonprofit First Street Foundation, which has modeled and mapped wildfire risk across the country.

In a report released this week, the group projects that nearly 72 million homes nationally face some level of wildfire risk this year. The model predicts that will grow to nearly 80 million, or 56% of all properties, during the next 30 years — the length of the typical home mortgage.

People are also reading…

In Washington, fire-prone areas in the Central and Eastern parts of the state will see even more properties at risk of wildfire damage by 2052, according to the model.

“This growing risk threatens the economic stability, natural resources, and quality of life for the communities and property owners affected,” the report says.

Another listing site, Seattle-based Redfin, includes in its listings storm, drought and wildfire risk using projections from a climate data startup, ClimateCheck.

The latest wildfire risk projections, now packaged for the average home shopper, come as fire season is already underway in the Southwest and as Washington is preparing for this year’s fires.

Local experts have pointed to various reasons for worsening wildfires, including climate change fueling hotter and drier conditions. Officials are also focused on years of fire suppression that in some areas allowed trees and other fuels to build up. The state recently resumed prescribed burns on some public lands in hopes of reducing wildfires.

This year, a wet spring has helped reduce the risk of wildfires in Western Washington, but fires are expected to pick up in Central and Eastern Washington in July and August.

To build its model, the First Street Foundation combined information about fuels, weather, historical wildfires and other measures to estimate the likelihood an area could burn, the intensity of a potential fire and the amount of embers that could land nearby.

Levels of risk range from “minor” with less than a 1% risk over 30 years, or risk from embers only, to “extreme” with a risk of more than 26% over the same time period. Properties with a .03% annual risk of wildfire would have a 1% risk over 30 years.

Those numbers may seem small. Flood risk is often defined as a 1% annual risk. But researchers settled on the lower threshold after consulting with firefighting agencies, said the nonprofit’s chief research officer Jeremy Porter.

“You can have a little bit of water, you can have six inches or even a foot of water in your house. It’s going to cost a lot of money for repairs, but it’s not the same as wildfires reaching your house. You can’t have a little bit of wildfire in your house,” Porter said.

In Washington, the model predicts 480,800 properties have at least a .03% likelihood of being in a wildfire this year, or about 16% of properties in the state. That number is expected to increase to 560,000 properties in 30 years.

Home shoppers in the Ellensburg and Cle Elum areas are increasingly interested in the risk of wildfires to properties, said Rory Savage, the owner of a Windermere brokerage in the area who has worked in real estate since 1985.

“It’s similar to somebody who was building on the bank of the Snohomish River. You look at a river and immediately you think, ‘Well, would this flood?'” Savage said. “People were not asking that question — ‘Could this burn?’ — until we started to have [more] fires. Now the question is, ‘Hey, what are the risks?'”

Wildfires have already collided with severe housing shortages across the West and destroyed hundreds of homes in Washington’s worst fire seasons.

In 2020 — the year a fire destroyed 80% of homes in Malden and Pine City, in Whitman County — 298 homes were lost across the state, along with hundreds of other structures, said Thomas Kyle-Milward, wildfire communications manager at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Last year, at least 25 homes had been destroyed by Aug. 18.

In recent years, drier conditions have begun to overlap with another trend in some fire-prone areas: an influx of new arrivals now able to work remotely.

“People are coming out of the cities,” Porter said. “They’re moving further into forested and higher-risk areas.”

Real estate agents in fire-prone corners of the state talk with homebuyers about the risk of fires, any high-risk features on the home (say, a shake roof in a timbered area) and how to mitigate risks, as well as referring them to local firefighting agencies, said Savage, the Windermere broker.

To reduce risk, the state recommends keeping the area surrounding the home free of leaves and rubbish, removing tree limbs within 15 feet of the ground, trimming dead branches that hang over the roof and stacking firewood at least 100 feet away and uphill. More tips are available at firewise.org and dnr.wa.gov on the wildfire resources page.

For people shopping for a new home, wildfire risk “should be factored in,” said Guy Gifford, an assistant division manager at DNR who works with property owners to reduce wildfire risk on their property.

“Just like building in a flood plain, you’ve got to consider the risk of living in those areas.”