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FEMA: Wildfires can raise the risk of flooding for up to five years

A fire burns in a forest full of green trees with white and grey smoking filling the top left of the photo.
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NPS Climate Change Response

When you think of the risks posed by wildfires, does flooding come to mind? It may not, but federal disaster officials say that it should.

Intense wildfires can burn up much of a landscape’s vegetation and the roots below the ground, leaving behind a burn scar.

“All of the things that soak up water in a normal circumstance are gone,” said Jeff Jackson, FEMA’s deputy assistant administrator for federal insurance. “And so for a period of up to five years, it makes those areas that have experienced wildfires at a much, much higher risk of flooding.”

He said that even small amounts of rain can cause flooding near burn scars, and that climate change is bringing less predictable and sometimes extreme rainfall, adding that “the risk is changing faster than we can measure it.”

A dramatic example is Flagstaff, Arizona, where major flooding has been a regular problem after the powerful 2022 Pipeline Fire tore through the San Francisco Peaks.

Because most homeowner’s insurance policies don’t cover flood damage, residents who live near recent burns can be vulnerable to major, uncovered losses.

“Reach out to their insurance agent today, talk to them about the concerns that they have, tell them you'd like to pick up a flood policy,” Jackson advised.

Flood policies have a 30-day waiting period, and Jackson warned against waiting for rain in the forecast and delaying getting insurance. More information can be found at floodsmart.gov.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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