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A non-profit research group is releasing a first-of-its-kind tool for homeowners. Produced by First Street Foundation, the ratings tool shows the wildfire risk for properties across the lower 48 states, and shows how that risk will change as the climate gets hotter.

In 2018, Congress mandated that the U.S. Forest Service create nationwide wildfire maps. The result, Wildfire Risk to Communities, shows how cities and neighborhoods are vulnerable to wildfire, but isn't detailed enough to be used for individual properties and homes.

"Because it's a broad, national mapping project where we don't have property level data on how susceptible each person's home is –what the siding material, roofing material is, et cetera – we take a very coarse look at that," says Greg Dillon, director of the Fire Modeling Institute with the U.S. Forest Service.

Just over 100,000 properties in the state currently have a 1% or greater annual chance of being affected by wildfire. The number is expected to reach about 600,000 by 2052, according to the data from First Street Foundation.

The modeling, which marks the first effort to calculate the fire risk of each property in the United States, assumes that development will remain constant and takes into account only climate inputs, according to Jeremy Porter, the foundation’s chief research officer.

Greg Dillon, director of the Fire Modeling Institute at the agency’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, said the methodology appeared sound.

“I think the more we can get homeowners and communities thinking about their risks and what they can do to take action about them, the better,” he said.

Dillon led the modeling efforts used in the Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk to Communities mapping, which models fire risk at a community level. He said the agency does not drill down to the parcel level in its modeling because there are potential uncertainties and because it believes the community is an appropriate scale for action when it comes to mitigating risk.

“If one home in a neighborhood works to mitigate their wildfire risk, but their neighbors aren’t doing anything, then they’re not effectively reducing their risk very much,” he said. “It takes community action.”

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First Street’s analysis of property-level exposure to risk is underpinned by a high-resolution model of wildfire behavior across the country. The model is based on a number of factors, including the proximity to combustible fuels that contribute to wildfire — like shrubs, grasses and trees — historical weather, previous fires, and warming climate conditions like temperature and precipitation. It builds on estimates from the United States Forest Service of community-level wildfire risk.

Researchers at the Forest Service and elsewhere said First Street’s approach was reasonable, though they cautioned that such granular projections should be viewed as estimates only, with significant levels of uncertainty.

Greg Dillon, director of the Forest Service’s Fire Modeling Institute, said people also shouldn’t discount the threat of wildfire just because they’re not in the highest risk categories on such maps. “If you’re in anything but the lowest risk category, you should be talking to your neighbors about risk mitigation and what you can do,” he said. “In a lot of the United States, there’s a potential for fire.”

Lockheed Martin Space, based in Jefferson County, is tapping decades of experience of managing satellites, exploring space and providing information for the U.S. military to offer more accurate data quicker to ground crews. They are talking to the U.S. Forest Service, university researchers and a Colorado state agency about how their their technology could help.

The company is also talking to researchers at the U.S. Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana. Mark Finney, a research forester, said it’s early in discussions with Lockheed Martin.

“They have a strong interest in applying their skills and capabilities to the wildland fire problem, and I think that would be welcome,” Finney said.

The lab in Missoula has been involved in fire research since 1960 and developed most of the fire-management tools used for operations and planning, Finney said. “We’re pretty well situated to understand where new things and capabilities might be of use in the future and some of these things certainly might be.”

Over the past decade, a team led by Dan Isaak, an Idaho-based biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, has been compiling temperature records from various rivers and streams across the Western United States into a comprehensive database. In 2014, Isaak and other researchers began using that data to predict temperature shifts in the region’s waterways; four years later, they found that by 2050 there will be an average increase of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, Isaak’s research shows that unless the world gets serious about tackling the climate crisis, the increase will jump to nearly 5.5 degrees by the end of the century.

That’s not enough to make trout disappear, but it could have major effects on where they’re able to live, much less thrive. “As the water gets warmer, they’re going to have to move up in elevation [where it’s cooler] to maintain their equilibrium with the environment,” Isaak says. According to his research, that could result in an eight to 31 percent decrease in suitable habitat in the West as some rivers and streams are pushed past trouts’ thermal tipping point.

Mike Battaglia is a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service. He said the process of replanting cannot keep up with the need and the size of fires like Hayman.

"You have to grow them out in nurseries, then you have to transport them back out to the field two years later and then plant them," Battaglia said.

The answer, Battaglia said, is thinning out forests by cutting down trees and using prescribed burns.

"We think we can start living with fire rather than just trying to avoid fire," Battaglia said.

He said the U.S. Forest Service has a 10-year strategy that includes expansion of replanting trees in burned areas like the Hayman Fire scar and the use of more controlled burns to reduce wildfire danger across Colorado.

Clearing flammable brush and debris from privately owned forests is a key way to prevent major wildfire damage to homes, property and communities, especially in the parched West. Hundreds of millions of acres owned by more than 10 million families — nearly 40 percent of U.S. forestland — need this kind of management. But wildfire fuel reduction takes knowledge, labor and money. Small landowners need help to do it.

As the so far busy year continues for fire crews on the ground in Colorado, eyes are on the ever-changing wildfire risk along the Front Range from out of state. 

At the U.S. Forest Service's Missoula Fire Sciences Lab in Montana, a team put together an interactive map, as directed by Congress, to help show the wildfire risk to communities across the United States.

"We have a collection of research scientists doing science on a whole range of issues around wildland fire, everything from studying fire behavior to studying smoke and the chemistry of smoke to studying fire ecology and how fire operates on the landscape and in ecosystems," said Greg Dillon, Director of the Fire Modeling Institute at the lab. 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – If you’ve been in New Mexico during wildfire season, you know the all-too-familiar smell of smoke in the air and the sound of fire trucks racing to the scene of another New Mexico wildfire. You probably remember fires in the Jemez mountains, blazes near Ruidoso, or flames in the Albuquerque foothills in years past. But have you ever wondered what communities are at the greatest risk for fire damage?

Wildfire researchers sure have. In fact, it’s a question the U.S. Forest Service has been researching for years now.

...The U.S. Forest Service didn’t just collect wildfire risk data for the fun of it. The data is intended to help communities better prepare and mitigate wildfire risks, Dillon says. And there are specific things homeowners in at-risk areas can do. Here are some tips from Dillon and the U.S. Forest Service (more info can be found here).

The world's oldest tree ring laboratory helping the U.S. Forest Service predict effects of changing climate.

Even in a seemingly lush forest filled with abundant greenery like the Cibola National Forest, telltale signs of drought are present, explained John Shaw, who leads forest analysis for part of the western U.S.

"If things are hotter and drier, that line where trees can survive is going to creep up to where the climate is a little less stressful," he said in an interview beneath the forest canopy.

Now, the U.S. Forest Service is collaborating with the world's oldest tree ring laboratory, using new data to enhance its projections of how a changing climate is affecting America's forests.

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