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New tool allows users to check risk of wildfire for every home in Sonoma County, across the US

A new study has assessed the risk of damage from wildfire for every home in the U.S., and the researchers have released an online tool that allows users to see their findings.

Risk Factor, launched this week by New York-based climate change think tank First Street Foundation, is the first publicly available database with wildfire risk assessments for homes nationwide, said Matthew Eby, the organization’s executive director.

The tool, available at riskfactor.com, allows users to search any address in the country for an assessment. Each home is assigned a risk score.

The study measured the likelihood of flames damaging homes over the next 30 years, incorporating projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the risk over the course of a typical mortgage.

The tool builds on a previous First Street study that assessed flood risk across the country. Risk Factor combines both flooding and wildfire data for each home.

The researchers have published the methodology behind their study.

While other databases show fire risk for properties across California, including one maintained by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and maps created by Cal Fire, Risk Factor is nationwide.

The organization’s risk assessments will be featured on Realtor.com for prospective homebuyers, according to a First Street Foundation news release.

In the wake of the 2017 North Bay firestorm, which destroyed more than 6,000 homes, concerns about wildfire risk were top of mind for many prospective homebuyers in the region, said Christen Hamilton, a Sonoma County real estate agent with Compass.

The concerns have faded somewhat in the years since, Hamilton said, but she still gets asked often about whether fire risk has spiked the cost of homeowner’s insurance.

Hamilton said she advises clients to use a variety of different resources in order to assess the risk of fire on a given property. A new tool could be helpful, depending on how reliable the data is, she said.

“You’ve got to look at several different sources, because a lot of the maps are different,” she said. “It can be very confusing to a consumer. You get as much information as you can.”

For homeowners in high-risk areas, mitigating the threat of fire damage by clearing vegetation can entail a lot of work, said Cyndi Foreman, fire marshal and prevention division chief for the Sonoma County Fire District.

“Its almost 365 days a year,” she said. “You have to be diligent.”

A map of Sonoma County’s wildfire hazard areas, included in the county's General Plan. The areas of most severe risk were affected by the county's largest fire, the 2019 Kincade fire in northeastern Sonoma County, and its most destructive, 2017 Tubbs and Nuns fires, to the south. (Permit Sonoma)
A map of Sonoma County’s wildfire hazard areas, included in the county's General Plan. The areas of most severe risk were affected by the county's largest fire, the 2019 Kincade fire in northeastern Sonoma County, and its most destructive, 2017 Tubbs and Nuns fires, to the south. (Permit Sonoma)

But even homes outside of Sonoma County’s high-risk areas aren’t out of the woods when it comes to the possibility of fire damage, Foreman said.

The 2017 fires underscored the unpredictability of wildfires in the North Bay.

“What we saw in the Tubbs fire is homes that are absolutely not in the high, very high or even moderate risk zones burn to the ground,” Foreman said. “The Larkfield area and Coffey Park — those would have hit nobody’s radar for high risk for wildfire.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Pera at matthew.pera@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Matt__Pera.

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