An updated wildfire risk tool gives users more data to support preparation and responses

The risk of catastrophic wildfires is steadily increasing. A recently updated online tool gives people a more detailed understanding of where the risks are greatest – and what they can do about it.

The US Forest Service website was first launched in 2020 to help leaders and residents of fire-threatened communities understand the danger they face and take steps to reduce it. The tool has just been updated with improved vegetation and weather data and updated wildfire hazard modeling.

It now shows that about 115 million people — or a third of the U.S. population — live in counties at high risk for wildfires. More than 60% of counties in Washington and Oregon are at such risk, up from 47% in previous iterations. Kelly Pohl, deputy director of Headwaters Economics, which worked with the Forest Service on the ground, said the risk is increasing as the climate becomes warmer and drier and more homes are built in the wilderness.

“The good news is that there are practical, proven steps we can take now to help protect communities,” she said. “And the website has tools to help you take action.”

Users can, among other things, see where high-risk structures are concentrated, receive tips on making structures more fire-safe and make research funding available for mitigation work.

To illustrate the tool’s new ability to highlight areas of concern, she looked to Ada County, home to Idaho’s capital, Boise. The site shows that the risk of wildfires is higher there than in 99% of US counties, but that risk is not borne equally in the area. Site data shows that nearly 60% of structures have minimal fire exposure, but 27% have direct exposure.

A map showing the relative exposure of structures to wildfire in Ada County, Idaho

A map showing the relative exposure of structures to wildfire in Ada County, Idaho

“Those are places we might want to pay very close attention,” she said.

The site also provides data on vulnerable populations, such as older residents and those without access to a vehicle or who speak limited English.

“This tool can really help leaders understand where neighborhoods may experience wildfires differently and anticipate those needs to help communities prepare in advance,” Pohl said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a partnership between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the country world. region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Society for Public Broadcasting.

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