Millions of Americans have seen the alarming images of wildfires scorching thousands of acres in California. But you might be surprised to learn that California isn’t the top state in the West — the U.S. region most susceptible to such disasters — for the percentage of homes at the greatest risk of being damaged by wildfires. That dubious distinction goes to Colorado.

A LawnStarter analysis of data for 13 Western states found that 99,676 homes in Colorado are at high or very high risk of being damaged in a wildfire. That represents just over 5 percent of total households in Colorado — the highest percentage among the 13 Western states examined.

People tend to think about scenery when they build a home, not wildfire.
— Forest and wildlife scientist Susan Stewart

To come up with our ranking of wildfire-jeopardized states, LawnStarter coupled data from CoreLogic, a provider of analytics software, with data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The CoreLogic data covers single-family dwellings, including traditional homes, duplexes and mobile homes, at high or very high risk of being damaged in a wildfire. The Census Bureau data tracks the number of households in each state.

Colorado wildfire

A plane drops fire retardant on a wildfire in Colorado.
Flickr/U.S. Air Force

Rocky Mountain Risk

Wildfire expert John Daily, director of the Center for Combustion and Environmental Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says most Coloradans live along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and many of them are in wildfire-prone areas. The Front Range sits at the crossroads of something known as “wildland-urban interface,” where urban and residential development encroaches on unoccupied land, according to CoreLogic.

Across the country, about one-third of homes are in wildland-urban zones, the U.S. Forest Service says. To be considered a wildland-urban zone, an area must have at least one structure for every 40 acres, according to the Forest Service.

“In some areas, building is occurring in fire-prone areas with little consideration of risks. People tend to think about scenery when they build a home, not wildfire,” says Susan Stewart, a forest and wildlife scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

The Denver metro area alone has more than 30,000 single-family homes at high or very high risk of wildfire damage, with an estimated reconstruction cost of more than $9.3 billion, according to CoreLogic. Particularly vulnerable is the Denver suburb of Evergreen, where CoreLogic says more than 5,800 homes are at very high risk of wildfire damage.

Colorado wildfire

A firefighter gazes at the sky during a Colorado wildfire.
Flickr/U.S. Air Force

Danger Ahead?

“Climate projections suggest Colorado is at the border between drier and wetter weather. This would suggest that wildfire frequency and intensity would remain about the same, on average,” Daily says. “Bigger and more frequent fires occur in dry years, fewer in wet ones. This has been a wet year, and we haven’t seen any big fires yet.”

Jeff Berino, a wildfire consultant with AEI Corp. in Littleton, Colorado, says that on the heels of a “very light” 2015 wildfire season, he expects Colorado to encounter some severe wildfire seasons in the next decade and beyond.

“Colorado has poor forest health due to severe impacts of beetle infestation, prolonged long-term drought and some effects of what is referred to as global warming,” Berino says. “It will be interesting to see what effect the predicted strong El Niño will have for the winter snowpack and the 2016 wildfire season.”

What follows is our ranking of 13 Western states based on the greatest risk of wildfire damage to homes.

1. Colorado

Colorado wildfire

A wildfire scorches trees in Colorado.
Flickr/U.S. Air Force

Homes at high risk of damage: 50,009
Homes at very high risk of damage: 49,667
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 99,676
2014 population: 5,355,866
Number of households (2009-2013): 1,977,591
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 5.04%

2. Montana

Montana wildfire

Emergency vehicles respond to a wildfire in Montana.
Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Homes at high risk of damage: 9,601
Homes at very high risk of damage: 10,218
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 19,819
Number of households (2009-2013): 405,525
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 4.89%

3. New Mexico

New Mexico wildfire

Smoke billows from a wildfire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
Flickr/Gila National Forest

Homes at high risk of damage: 25,766
Homes at high risk of damage: 9,481
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 35,247
2014 population: 2,085,572
Number of households (2009-2013): 761,938
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 4.63%

4. Idaho

Idaho wildfire

Firefighters battle a wildfire in Idaho’s Boise National Forest.
Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Homes at high risk of damage: 15,197
Homes at very high risk of damage: 11,078
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 26,275
2014 population: 1,634,464
Number of households (2009-2013): 579,797
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 4.53%

5. Oregon

Oregon wildfire

A crew member cleans up after a wildfire in Oregon.
Flickr/Oregon Military Department

Homes at high risk of damage: 51,872
Homes at very high risk of damage: 13,788
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 65,660
2014 population: 3,970,239
Number of households (2009-2013): 1,516,456
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 3.86%

6. Texas

Texas wildfire

A wildfire towers over a community in Texas.
Flickr/Joe Wolf

Homes at high risk of damage: 261,855
Homes at very high risk of damage: 35,016
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 296,871
2014 population: 26,956,958
Number of households (2009-2013): 8,886,471
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 3.34%

7. California

California wildfire

A chopper pilot surveys a wildfire in California.
Flickr/California National Guard

Homes at high risk of damage: 255,023
Homes at very high risk of damage: 50,905
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 305,928
2014 population: 38,802,500
Number of households (2009-2013): 15,542,460
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 1.97%

8. Wyoming

Wyoming wildfire

The sun sets amid wildfire smoke in Wyoming.
Flickr/Elliot Gilfix

Homes at high risk of damage: 2,259
Homes at high risk of damage: 1,654
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 3,913
2014 population: 584,153
Number of households (2009-2013): 222,846
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 1.76%

9. Nevada

Nevada wildfire

This photo shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Nevada.
Flickr/Ken Lund

Homes at high risk of damage: 8,653
Homes at very high risk of damage: 281
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 8,934
2014 population: 2,839,099
Number of households (2009-2013): 999,016
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 0.89%

10. Arizona

Arizona wildfire

A wildfire rips through Coconino National Forest in Arizona.
Flickr/Coconino National Forest

Homes at high risk of damage: 8,488
Homes at very high risk of damage: 8,098
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 16,586
2014 population: 6,731,484
Number of households (2009-2013): 2,370,289
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 0.70%

11. Washington

Washington wildfire

This wildfire burned more than 14,000 acres in Washington.
Flickr/Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Homes at high risk of damage: 12,509
Homes at very high risk of damage: 1997
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 14,506
Number of households (2009-2013): 2,629,126
2014 population: 7,061,530
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 0.55%

12. Utah

Utah wildfire

A wildfire creeps toward a neighborhood in Utah.
Flickr/Carl Berger

Homes at high risk of damage: 3441
Homes at very high risk of damage: 68
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 3,509
2014 population: 2,942,902
Number of households (2009-2013): 886,770
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 0.40%

13. Oklahoma

Oklahoma wildfire

A bison tries to graze at a wildfire-scorched area in Oklahoma.
Flickr/Larry Smith

Homes at high risk of damage: 187
Homes at very high risk of damage: 0
Total number of homes at high or very high risk of damage: 187
2014 population: 3,878,051
Number of households (2009-2013): 1,444,081
Highest-risk homes as a percentage of total households: 0.013%

Sources

http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk

http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/30000.html

http://www.corelogic.com/research/wildfire-risk-report/2015-wildfire-hazard-risk-report.pdf

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