Climate hazards cost Fairbanks, Anchorage homeowners millions

Quin Wuttke ice skates on a street in downtown Anchorage during a rain-on-snow event in December 2019. Photo by Eric Wuttke

Fairbanks, Alaska (UAF) – A new survey has found that Fairbanks and Anchorage homeowners are increasingly threatened by climate-related hazards like wildfire, permafrost thaw, and winter rain, the latter costing homeowners $25 million in annual damages. 

Nearly 700 homeowners responded to the University of Alaska Fairbanks-led survey. They shared views on the risks posed by wildfire, permafrost thaw, and icing. Questions explored how homeowners are affected and how they mitigate these climate hazards.

“Alaskans are really connected to the environment,” said Tobias Schwoerer, a social scientist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center who led the survey. “They’re aware of environmental hazards and are doing something about them. They’re also realizing that these hazards are increasing.” 

Climate change is intensifying and northern homeowners now face multiple hazards simultaneously. In Fairbanks, 35% of homeowners were affected by all three hazards assessed by the project; this was nearly twice the percentage of homeowners experiencing the three hazards compared to Anchorage. 

According to the survey, Fairbanks residents experienced the greatest impacts from wildfire and permafrost, while Anchorage residents were most affected by icing events.

Ice in the form of freeze-thaw episodes or rain in winter impacted nearly all Fairbanks and Anchorage residents, though people in Anchorage were more likely to experience serious consequences. Ice events caused people to miss work, lose power, and get into accidents. Property damage and health care associated with ice events in 2020 and 2021 cost Anchorage residents $47.8 million, compared to $6.7 million in Fairbanks. Over three-quarters of Fairbanks homeowners believe that ice hazards worsened in the past decade.  

The study also estimated that half of Fairbanks homeowners have so far been affected by permafrost thaw, compared to only 15% in Anchorage. One third of Fairbanks homeowners had experienced foundation issues. Other impacts include changes to landscaping, septic system issues, driveway heaving, and more. All Fairbanks homeowners, during the time they’ve had their current houses, have spent an estimated $226.3 million on permafrost mitigation — a figure 11 times greater than spending in Anchorage. 

Given Fairbanks’ location in the fire-prone boreal forest, it is no surprise that wildfire impacted the livelihoods of Fairbanks residents more than in Anchorage. Impacts ranged from minor (staying indoors) to severe (property loss). Nearly 90% of Fairbanks residents completed at least some wildfire mitigation near their homes in the past five years, compared to about 70% in Anchorage. Over the past five years, homeowners in Fairbanks and Anchorage spent an estimated $2.6 million and $2.1 million respectively on wildfire mitigation. They installed fire-resistant roofing, removed dead trees, and created defensible space around homes. 

Though the survey identified strong participation in the State of Alaska’s Firewise program that reimburses and guides homeowners to reduce wildfire risk on their properties, Schwoerer stressed that Alaskans need additional support. In some cases, responding to one hazard may conflict with mitigation strategies for another. For example, clearing shrubs or trees around structures to reduce wildfire risk may increase the permafrost thaw near homes. Programs are needed that provide complex, location-specific resources when multiple hazards are present. 

“The Firewise program was a good start. But we need to keep going,” Schwoerer emphasized. “We need to increase funding and do a better job at outreach in order to reduce risk for private homeowners, especially across low-income brackets that are more likely to live in multihazard areas.”

Local government structure matters when it comes to garnering support for such programs. Anchorage’s community councils make it relatively easy for the community to organize around important issues and approach local and state governments for funding. In Fairbanks, this system is not in place, and residents may need to organize through much larger road service areas or other pathways. 

The survey results are published in the journal Ambio. The research is part of a larger project known as Responding to Risk funded by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences. Project leaders include Jen Schmidt at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Jim Powell at the University of Alaska Southeast.