• As wildfires devastate regions of the Western United States, parts of the Midwest and East Coast also face an increasing threat due to accelerating climate change risks, researchers say.
  • Modelling finds wildfires pose at least a moderate risk to more than 30 million properties across the United States.
  • Bigger blazes will strain firefighting resources and threaten more livelihoods.

From New Jersey to Georgia, U.S. states thousands of miles from wildfire hotspots in the west face a growing risk from forest blazes as global warming makes "safe havens" increasingly rare, researchers warned on Monday.

Wildfires pose at least a moderate risk to more than 30 million properties across the United States, according to modeling by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that maps climate risks.

The accelerating risk of wildfires

"Wildfire risk is increasing so much faster than even flood risk is across the U.S.," said Ed Kearns, the group's chief data officer. "And it's likely to affect areas that aren't thought of as wildfire-prone areas right now, but will be soon."

Well beyond hard-hit states such as California and New Mexico, East Coast spots including South and North Carolina are among those with the most properties threatened by fires, the research found.

It used a new model intended to give home and other property owners a detailed risk assessment of the climate-related threats facing their properties, including wildfires and floods.

"That ability for an individual to sit down and type in their address and see what their risk is makes a personal connection between climate change and this data set and their lives," Kearns said.

A handful of counties in Georgia, for example, were among those with the largest projected rise in the share of properties with at least moderate wildfire risk between now and 2052.

The researchers looked at about 140 million properties nationwide, including residential and commercial buildings as well as vital infrastructure including schools and airports.

They found that close to 80 million of them face some degree of risk, with 30.4 million facing at least "moderate" risk.

That corresponds to an annual "burn probability" of 0.03% or more, or at least a 1% cumulative chance of experiencing a wildfire during the life of a 30-year mortgage.

Map of the US showing the percent increase of properties with moderate risk of wildfires in 30 years.
Areas beyond the hard-hit western United States are also projected to see an increased risk of wildfires.
Image: First Street Foundation

'Choose your poison'

Wildfire risk is far more prevalent than researchers had expected before creating the model, said Matthew Eby, First Street Foundation's founder and executive director.

Western states that already face significant risk will see that worsen over time with climate change, including places like California, New Mexico and Colorado that are accustomed to dealing with major blazes, the report said.

But other places in the Midwest and South are already at risk, it noted. South Carolina and North Carolina both feature among the top U.S. states for the number of properties with at least a moderate risk of experiencing a wildfire in 2022.

Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who was not involved in the report, said it was tough to escape "detrimental" effects from rising temperatures.

"No matter where you live, there's something bad coming out of climate change – whether fire or drought or bigger storms or heatwaves – choose your poison," he said.

Jonathon Golden, a former wildland firefighter, said East Coast residents were less accustomed to fires than people living in the west.

"Climate change is really going to surprise a lot of people, and they're going to see a lot of things that they haven't seen before in their lives," he said.

Beyond the threat to life, livelihoods and property, the expanding danger zone threatens to put further strain on federal firefighters at a time when many are sounding the alarm about low pay and hazardous working conditions.

Traditionally, when work on wildfires has been completed out west, federal resources shift east to assist with "hurricane duty," Golden said.

But now there could be a perfect storm lining up of overlapping hurricane and fire seasons, he warned.

"That's really going to stress and strain resources being able to respond to both incidents at the same time," he said.

Environment

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

Our planet is straining under the burden of a global population of nearly 8 billion people.

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Nature and Climate accelerates actions on climate change and environmental sustainability, food systems, the circular economy and value chains, and the future of international development.

  • Through the Global Plastic Action Partnership, we are bringing together government, business and civil society to shape a more sustainable world through the eradication of plastic pollution.
  • The centre is championing Nature-Based Solutions. Global companies are working together through the 1t.org initiative to support 1 trillion trees by 2030. Since September 2021, over 30 companies have committed to conserve, restore and grow more than 3.6 billion trees in over 60 countries.
  • Through a partnership with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and over 30 global businesses, the Forum is encouraging companies to join the First Movers Coalition and invest in innovative green technologies so they are available for massive scale-up by 2030 to enable net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.
  • The centre is also bringing leaders together to make commitments to a circular economy approach. Globally, the Scale360° initiative will reduce the environmental impact of value chains within the fashion, food, plastics and electronics industries – a significant step in making the $4.5 trillion circular economy opportunity a reality. The African Circular Economy Alliance is funding circular economy entrepreneurs and circular economy activities in countries including Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa. In China, the Forum's Circular Electronics in China project is helping companies reduce and recycle 50% of e-waste by 2025.
  • The Forum is also crowdsourcing solutions to the climate crisis through its open innovation platform, UpLink. Since 2020 this digital space has welcomed over 40,000 users who are working on over 30 challenges including reducing plastic ocean pollution, scaling efforts to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees and innovating the production and processing of aquatic foods.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.