Science

What’s Your Home’s Flood or Wildfire Danger? This Site Will Tell You

Mortgage and insurance companies rely on various data to assess a property’s risk for natural disasters. For flood risk, the primary source is FEMA flood maps. Like on Risk Factor, consumers can plug in their address and see areas with flood risks within their community. But unlike Risk Factor, the FEMA data isn’t property specific.

FEMA’s flood maps are created by FEMA agents and a floodplain administrator who work with local engineers and surveys to collect data on flood zones. Flood zones are primarily determined by the history of flooding in the area and are rated according to the probability of annual flooding. FEMA maps do not consider how the climate is expected to change in the future and how that will impact weather events.

Risk Factor, however, uses current climate data, maps and precipitation, and includes areas that FEMA hasn’t mapped. This model identifies the likelihood of flooding by recreating dozens of past hurricanes, tropical storms, nor’easters and major inland flood events. The Risk Factor model also calculates the current probability of tidal, storm surge, pluvial (rainfall) and fluvial (riverine) flooding for individual homes and properties. The resulting analysis reveals a far different picture than what FEMA maps paint.

For example, FEMA classifies 8.7 million properties as having substantial flood risk or being within special flood hazard areas. Risk Factor, on the other hand, after adjusting for future environmental factors like changing sea levels, warming sea surface and atmospheric temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, finds the number about 70 percent higher — with 14.6 million properties at the same level of risk.

Another example is wildfire risk. States prone to wildfire typically assess a property’s wildfire risk based on factors such as topography, vegetation, wind patterns and how accessible a home is to firefighters in the event of a fire. According to Verisk Analytics, a data analytics and risk assessment firm, 4.5 million U.S. homes are identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire.

In determining a property’s wildfire risk, Risk Factor digs deeper. It uses data on historical wildfire occurrences to inform where wildfires may occur based on the Fire Occurrence Database developed by the United States Forest Service. But it also considers climate changes. The tool identifies more than 10 million U.S. properties at major risk to extreme risk of wildfire. Overall, Risk Factor found that 71.8 million homes have some level of wildfire risk in 2022, growing to 79.8 million by 2050 due to the changing climate.

Risk Factor also predicts the frequency, duration and intensity of extremely hot days will change over the next 30 years. Its model shows that 50 counties in the U.S. with more than 8 million residents will experience temperatures above 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51.6 degrees Celsius) in 2023 and by 2053, a total of 1,023 counties are expected to exceed 125 degrees, affecting 107.6 million Americans.

Research shows that extreme heat increases the risk of other natural disasters including drought. Hot, dry conditions can, in turn, create an environment ripe for wildfire. Beyond Risk Factor, First Street Foundation and the Research Lab team continue to better understand climate risk, its consequences and possible solutions. Take a look at some of the nonprofit’s recently published research here.

This hyper-local map from Risk Factor shows an extremely granular understanding of heat risks. It was created using climate-adjusted predictions for the monthly averaged daily maximum temperature for
the hottest month of the year over a seven year period.

Risk Factor

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