What Agents Need to Know About Helping Clients Buy Homes in Wildfire Danger Zones

Do you work in an area with a high risk of wildfires? You may not even realize that you do! Here are some ways agents can help clients get educated about wildfire risks when purchasing a property. 

Make Sure They Understand the Risk

When you think of wildfires, you may think of the devastating fires in northern California over the last few years. And while that area is definitely at high risk for fires, some of the most vulnerable areas to wildfire are not where you’d think. 

This list of U.S. cities at risk for wildfire damage puts Portland, OR; New Orleans, LA; St. Paul, MN; and Wichita, KS in the top ten. It’s likely there are homeowners in those cities who have no idea they’re living in an area at high risk for wildfire.

Many People Don’t Know Their Fire Risk

Only two states, California and Oregon, require any kind of wildfire risk disclosure when selling a home. In fact, a group of researchers who sent out a survey to study wildfire preparedness in Colorado had homeowners tell them the survey was the first time they’d learned they lived in a high-risk area. 

Not only are homeowners unaware of the risk of fire, the risk is increasing across the country.

Why the Risk of Wildfire Is Increasing

There are three big reasons why the risk of wildfire is increasing right now, according to a study published in the journal Fire. The first is that climate change is creating hotter, drier conditions that are more conducive to wildfires.

The second has to do with an increase in the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI. They define WUI as places where communities “meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation.” Between 1990 and 2010, the WUI doubled, and it’s expected to triple by 2030.

The WUI puts flammable material right near people’s homes. Human-started wildfires account for 97% of the fire threat to residential property. You can see why increasing the number of places where fire fuel and humans who start fires interact would increase fire risk.

Finally, and ironically, fire-suppression efforts have increased risk. Instead of doing controlled burns that eliminate underbrush (as Native caretakers of the land traditionally did in many areas), fire-prone areas have tried to eliminate all fires. This has allowed flammable brush to grow unchecked. If a fire does catch in those areas, it has fuel that allows it to grow and spread quickly.

How to Find Your Fire Risk

Okay, so how do you know if your client is looking at properties in fire-prone areas? One resource is these fire danger maps created by the U.S. Forest Service. Use the map to see if your area is at high risk for fire.

On a more granular level, you can look at the property itself. Homes built on slopes or in canyons are at higher risk for fire. Is the property located in the WUI? Point this out to your client. 

Many people see having a property that borders undeveloped land to be plus: no nosy neighbors, or maybe they’re located along a greenbelt or urban greenway. Make sure buyers understand the fire risks associated with living at the wildland-urban interface. 

Help Them Ask the Right Questions

When considering a property in an area with a wildfire risk, make sure your client is asking the right questions. Remember, there’s no disclosure requirement for fire risk, so if you want to know, ask!

Here are some questions to suggest:

  • Has this home ever been in a wildfire?

  • Have you ever heard of a wildfire happening in this neighborhood or near here?

  • Is this home built with fireproof materials? 

  • What is the roof made of? According to the Southern Foresters, “sparks setting fire to wood shake roofs are the major reason for home losses in rural and forested areas.” Metal, tile, and fiberglass roofs are much safer.

  • What fireproofing measures have you taken on the property?

In some areas, you can even get a special inspection to assess fire risk. Realtors in Eagle County, CO started a program that helps homeowners and buyers get educated about wildfires. See if there is something similar in your area you can recommend.

What About Insurance?

Most homeowners insurance will cover damage from wildfires. As you know, insurance is required for any buyer using a mortgage (and if they are buying in cash, definitely urge them to get insured!). 

Unlike with flood-prone areas, there is not a special, separate policy they’ll be required to buy for wildfire damage. However, insurance only protects after the fact. It’s still important to try and mitigate wildfire risk before their house burns down!

Show Them How They Can Mitigate Risk After Purchase

There are many things homeowners can do to reduce the risk of their homes being damaged by a wildfire. The National Fire Protection Association has great resources that show homeowners how to reduce wildfire risk through landscaping choices, building materials, and basic maintenance things like keeping gutters clean and putting mesh on the vents in the eaves.

If you work in an area that is fire-prone, consider creating educational materials you send to clients after closing to help them reduce their fire risk. Aceable real estate analyst Laura Adams suggests homeowners clear anything flammable close to the property.

Home Ignition Zones

Home ignition zones

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the theory of home ignition zones was developed by a USDA Forest Service fire scientist named Jack Cohen. It divides a property into three zones: immediate, intermediate, and extended. Each zone requires different fire mitigation strategies.

Immediate Zone

The immediate zone is the house and area right next to it, and it’s the most important zone. In the immediate zone:

  • Clean plant material from roofs and gutters

  • Repair shingles or roofing material that could admit embers

  • Cover any vents with ⅛” mesh to prevent embers from entering

  • Repair window screens, clean any areas where combustible material collects

  • Remove anything flammable (including plants and mulch) that is touching the exterior walls

  • Clean everything out from beneath porches and decks

Intermediate Zone

The intermediate zone is from five to 30 feet from the house. To make this area less fire-friendly:

  • Create fuel breaks with paving, decking, and driveway materials

  • Don’t let plant material grow around propane tanks

  • Prune trees six to 10 feet from the ground and remove vegetation climbing the tree (to prevent fire from getting easily to the top of the tree)

  • Keep all grasses mowed below four inches

  • Space trees 18 feet apart and keep them at least 10 feet from the roof

Extended Zone

The extended zone is from 30 to 100 feet from the house. The goal in this area is to reduce the fuel a fire will encounter to keep it small and close to the ground. This interrupts the fire’s spread. You should:

  • Take out dead trees and plants

  • Remove any build-up of leaves or other flammable material

  • Don’t put vegetation near sheds or buildings

  • Take out immature trees between mature trees

  • Space trees apart from each other

Advocate With Your Local REALTOR Group

Additionally, if your area doesn’t have a program like the REALfire program in Colorado, work with your local Realtor group to spread awareness about fire danger. Could you create a similar fire inspection program in your area? Could you share fire preparedness materials with other agents? 

Work in your real estate community to share information about preventing wildfires. The more property owners that take these fire mitigation measures, the less chance a fire has to start and spread.

Want to learn more about helping your clients stay safe? Check out our blog.

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Audrey Ference

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