A wildfire risk assessment is an important community planning tool. Identifying where wildfire risk is high in a community and who is likely to be most impacted by a wildfire can inform investment priorities, mitigation strategies, and resource allocation.
Wildfire risk assessments consider where fires are likely to occur, the intensity at which they might occur, and potential impacts to community resources, critical assets, and other values. Communities generally hire a contractor to assess and map wildfire risk. However, the first step is to check with the state forestry or natural resources department to determine whether a state-level wildfire risk assessment has already been conducted.
Wildfire risk is based on:
- Likelihood: the annual probability of wildfire burning in a specific location;
- Intensity: measure of the energy expected from a wildfire;
- Exposure: the overlap of wildfire likelihood and intensity; and
- Susceptibility: the propensity of a home or community to be damaged if a wildfire occurs.
A wildfire risk assessment can:
- Prioritize areas where wildfire hazard mitigation and planning efforts are most needed;
- Inform the development of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and other management plans and guiding documents; and
- Help determine land management strategies to minimize uncontrolled wildfires.
A home’s ability to survive wildfire is driven primarily by its construction materials and nearby vegetation (known as the “Home Ignition Zone”). The only way to truly determine a home’s susceptibility is through an individual home assessment. This detailed information is not captured in most community risk-modeling assessments.
Populations at risk
Understanding and identifying populations disproportionately impacted by wildfires is crucial for community planning, response, and recovery. Variables such as income, age, mobility, and other socioeconomic factors can influence people’s vulnerability to the impacts of wildfires.
For example, people in poverty may not have the agency and resources to prepare in advance of a wildfire or have homeowner’s insurance to help with the recovery process. Elderly and disabled people may have medical conditions that are exacerbated by wildfire smoke and environmental stress. Language barriers can make it more difficult to receive outreach material, evacuation notices, and access to recovery and relief opportunities. Any single characteristic—let alone overlapping characteristics—can result in disproportionate exposure to catastrophic loss.
Identifying the unequal impacts of wildfires can help community leaders, first responders, local governments, fire districts, and other partners address and prioritize efforts to help people prepare and adapt to increasing wildfire risks. Efforts might include:
- Develop natural hazard awareness and outreach materials, evacuation protocols, and relief aid information in multiple languages.
- Anticipate smoke impacts and develop smoke-ready community awareness campaigns with accessible clean-air shelters.
- Design evacuation routes and accessible ingress/egress options for elderly, disabled, and other people with mobility constraints.
Austin, TX – The city of Austin, TX, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Alongside a rapidly growing population and increasing home development in wildfire-prone areas, Austin has increasing wildfire risks as the climate gets warmer and drier. The city’s population is diverse. Understanding not only where wildfire risk is high but who is most likely to be affected by wildfires is crucial in Austin’s wildfire planning and prevention efforts. In addition to the city’s extensive mapping of wildland-prone areas, Austin wildfire partners mapped socioeconomic variables to determine populations within the city more vulnerable to wildfire impacts. Understanding this important information enabled more effective and targeted outreach and resource prioritization. Austin wildfire partners including the city Wildfire Division and local fire districts took the time to visit neighborhoods, build relationships, and lean on trusted networks such as cultural and faith-based organizations to provide vital information to nearby residents and neighborhoods. Austin has translated wildfire mitigation educational materials into seven languages and partnered with community groups who lead outreach efforts.
National Wildfire Risk Assessment Tools
- Wildfire Risk to Communities. USDA Forest Service, Headwaters Economics, and Pyrologix.
- Wildfire Hazard Explorer. National Association of State Foresters.
- State-Level Risk Assessments:For example, see Oregon Risk Explorer, Colorado Wildfire Risk Public Viewer, Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal.
Identifying Vulnerable Populations:
- The Unequal Impacts of Wildfires. 2021. Headwaters Economics.
- Economic Profile System: Wildfire Risk Report. Headwaters Economics.
- Social Vulnerability Index. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- EJScreen. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool: 2022. Council on Environmental Quality.