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Billions of Dollars of Real Estate at Risk to Wildfire, Experts Say

Image: Weed fire

A car and house are covered with fire retardent after a wildfire swept through Weed. Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, in Weed, California (Jim Seida / NBC News) Jim Seida / NBC News

Seeking the beauty of nature, Americans just can't stop building houses among trees that will, sooner or later, go up in flames.

"It is truly a when, not if," Sean McVay, a homeowner in Evergreen, Colorado, said of the threat that a wildfire will tear through his wooded community in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Denver. But that doesn't mean he plans to move. McVay bought the house last year. Like most homeowners there, he's an outdoor enthusiast.

"Being part of the wooded environment is a big draw," he said.

McVay is not alone. More than 1.1 million properties in the western United States were identified as highly vulnerable to wildfire in a 2015 risk report from analytics firm CoreLogic. The cost to rebuild those homes would total $269 billion, according to the report, which was written to inform the insurance industry and, perhaps, sway policymakers to encourage fire-safe construction in areas susceptible to wildfires.

Firefighters Prepare for War as Wildfire Season Approaches 2:04

"Insurers are really concerned with identifying high-risk properties and then trying to disseminate some of this information to the homeowner to get them to try to reduce the risk on their property," said Thomas Jeffery, a senior hazard scientist at CoreLogic and lead author of the report.

Opportunity to reduce risk

Until recently, insurers paid little attention to the threat of wildfire, according to Toddi Steelman, who studies wildfire preparedness and the interactions between science, policy, and decision making at the University of Saskatchewan. That's because wildfire makes up only about 2 percent of total property and casualty claims, an amount that pales in comparison to tornado, hurricane, and flood claims.

"There is a real opportunity to do more preventative action before [wildfire] becomes a bigger problem," she said. And the problem will grow, she said, as baby boomers seek to retire in beautiful, rural settings.

Nationwide, nearly a third of homes are in areas that meet or intermingle with wildlands, according to a 2013 report produced for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If current trends continue, 1 million more homes will be built within a half mile of the wildlands by 2030, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman with the National Interagency Fire Center.

Meanwhile, the federal government spent $1.5 billion fighting wildfires in 2014, which was down from the $1.7 billion spent in 2013, but up from $240 million in 1985. With approximately 70,000 communities in the country located in what's known as the wildland-urban interface, "a significant amount" of this money goes toward protecting homes, Jones said.

CoreLogic's report focuses on 13 western states and identifies the number of homes in particular zip codes at elevated wildfire risk due to the nature of their property or the proximity to wildfire-prone lands that can send embers onto a rooftop.

Dateline looks at California's worst wildfire on record 0:45

"More properties are actually affected by risk when you start to look at what is outside of the boundaries of that parcel," said Jeffery.

To reduce risk, experts recommend clearing flammable vegetation such as pine trees, shrubs and wood piles in at least a 30-foot perimeter around the home, using non-combustible construction materials such as ceramic shingles and composite decking instead of wood, and installing wire mesh over vents to prevent windblown embers from flying in.

The key, Jeffery said, is for whole neighborhoods to take these steps so that "you are actually creating a large defensible space … and enable the fire responders, the firefighters, to do their jobs more effectively" when -- not if -- the wildfire occurs.

Protecting the commons

The insurance industry can drive wildfire risk mitigation when people build, buy, or rebuild a home in the wildland-urban interface, Steelman said. That's because most homeowners are required to get insurance to satisfy mortgage requirements. State insurance commissions, which regulate the industry, could encourage companies "to do more," she said.

McVay said companies already are doing more. Finding insurance for his home in Evergreen was a challenge. A company he used for 18 years in the less fire-prone, though nearby, town of Golden refused to write a policy for his Evergreen home, which sent him looking elsewhere. Though he found an insurer, his rates are higher, and he was required to create a defensible space around his home.

California wildfires threaten hundreds of homes 1:06

He's also on a homeowners association committee that works with residents and local government to cut down the threat wildfires pose to their homes.

"There are an awful lot of neighbors that value that in-close feeling of having the trees right there," McVay said. "You can go onto [real estate website] Zillow and cruise through the homes that are for sale in Evergreen, and invariably you will find one where they've got a tree right through the deck … that is the type of people that like living up there."