Sep 13, 2023

How wildfire smoke can damage property, pose risk for real estate investors

Risk | by Alexandra Jones, Contributing Writer | 3 Minutes

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. As climate change drives more frequent and intense wildfires, more people and properties will be exposed to wildfire smoke. These noxious fumes can travel hundreds of miles from the source of a fire, which means even properties far outside the periphery of a wildfire can experience impacts. Smoke events can last for weeks, and the problems these events cause can linger.

Weather patterns, wind, and geography affect where smoke will settle and for how long. However, forecasting wildfire smoke is notoriously challenging, and it can be hard to project what areas are at highest risk of this climate-influenced hazard. The best available models can reliably predict smoke only about a day in advance.

Real estate investors need to be aware of the potential risks of wildfire smoke, as smoke events can require extensive remediation and can sometimes force a property to remain temporarily vacant — meaning higher costs and lower income for unlucky property owners. The right resiliency measures can help reduce negative smoke impacts to properties while protecting the health of building tenants.

Health Hazards to Tenants and Residents

Recent studies have found that smoke particles from wildfires can be ten times more harmful than other types of smoke. Wildfire smoke contains multiple pollutants, including fine particles (PM 2.5), toxic gases, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Smog from car and truck exhaust contains similar pollutants, such as fine particles.

The airborne pollutants in smoke can pose serious health risks, particularly for seniors, children, and people with chronic health conditions. Inhaling smoke particles can lead to respiratory problems, increase the risk of cardiovascular issues, and aggravate pre-existing health issues for years after exposure. Owners of properties that house vulnerable residents, such as long-term care and other healthcare facilities, may consider improvements to HVAC systems that can help protect indoor air quality during smoke events.

“When areas experience repeated wildfire smoke events, that can have an impact on demand, potentially causing vacancy and impacting pricing and ultimately yield,” said ClimateCheck CEO Cal Inman.

Mitigation measures to guard against wildfire smoke can also protect against smog. For wildfire smoke, the EPA recommends using air filters with a MERV rating of 13 or higher. MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, a rating that measures the effectiveness of an air filter in capturing and removing particles from the air. Filters with higher MERV ratings can more efficiently remove fine particles present in smoke, improving indoor air quality and reducing health risks associated with wildfire smoke exposure. (These same improvements can also help filter virus particles in the air.)

Lingering impacts of smoke

When wildfire smoke infiltrates buildings, it can not only impact air quality for a period, but smoke particles can penetrate porous objects and surfaces such as furniture and curtains, as well as infiltrate HVAC systems, causing lingering odors and other potential problems. Affected materials can require cleaning or potential replacement. The closer a building is to wildfire, the more susceptible it is to smoke damage, even if the structure is spared flames.

Property resilience measures like insulation, air quality monitors, and high-performance air filters can improve indoor air quality and help reduce damage caused by smoke — reducing potential need for cleaning and replacement of furniture or materials at a property. If you own a property near wildfire territory, you may also plan ahead to prevent smoke penetration. If you plan to leave the property vacant during fire season, or if a fire has started in your region and residents or employees must evacuate, you can turn off systems that circulate air and board up windows with a barrier like cardboard to prevent smoke from entering.

Big picture: Climate risk to real estate

Smoke is just one of several physical and financial risks of wildfire. Properties within a fire’s perimeter risk major damage or even total loss. Meanwhile, property owners and prospective investors in areas at risk of wildfire must contend with challenges in getting home insurance and the possibility of higher interest rates on loans.

ClimateCheck evaluates risk to individual properties, portfolios and specified areas several climate-related hazards — including heat, precipitation, drought, flooding, wind, and fire — to create a 1-100 risk score for each hazard. Our risk ratings reflect current and projected risk based on both historical data and projections through 2050.

For each hazard, ClimateCheck selects multiple downscaled global climate models, as well as additional data, to project risk. Different models may be better suited to different hazards. We use multiple models to gain a more nuanced understanding of risk in a particular area. We also constantly work to refine and expand our product, including introducing new hazards. Most recently, we added projections for extreme wind risk to our reports.

By leveraging climate risk reporting from ClimateCheck, real estate investors can take measures to mitigate risk to their properties, enhance their due diligence process for new investments, and ensure the long-term sustainability of their portfolios.

Alexandra Jones is a Philadelphia-based writer and author who covers agriculture and climate.

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