The United States likely faces increased risks of wildfires as Americans build in fire-prone areas, the study finds

The United States likely faces increased risks of wildfires as Americans build in fire-prone areas, the study finds

A study published in the journal Science on Thursday found that the number of homes in wildfire-prone areas has doubled since the 1990s due to housing growth and increased burned areas, leaving many households vulnerable to wildfires.

More and more Americans are building homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where homes and plants are in close proximity to each other. The 2000s saw an additional 2.6 million homes built in UI. The three decades before each saw the construction of an additional 5.7 million homes in these areas.

“We do not see slower development in the UI area despite rapid increases in area burned annually over the past three decades,” said study author Volker Radeloff. “Fire risks have increased, but development patterns have not changed.”

Housing growth has put about 47% more homes over the past 30 years at fire risk, while expanded burned areas have added another 53% more homes. About 11.3% of homes within the fire perimeter were destroyed by wildfire at that time.

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“Any growth in UI increases the risk of wildfire to homes, and more fires increase the risk of exposure of existing UI homes,” authors from the University of Wisconsin stated in the study. “During the 1990s and 2000s, UI was the fastest growing land cover type in the United States.”

California and Texas have a large percentage of homes in the WUI area:

  • Across the United States, there are 44.1 million homes in the WUI area.
  • In California, there are 5.1 million homes in the World Interface (WUI) area.
  • In Texas, there are 3.2 million homes in WUI.

“In Texas, housing growth in total West UI areas was nearly double the growth in non-West UI areas (20.3% vs. 10.6%) during the 2000s, and 93.3% of all new homes in Texas were built during the decade The latter is in the western UI region,” read the study.

Multiple wildfires fueled by drought fury from Texas to North Carolina

Between 2010 and 2022, more than 55,000 homes burned, resulting in tragic loss of life, economic losses and disruption of entire communities as seen in Paradise, California. Only a third of homeowners have returned to their homes after 95% of the once-thriving city was destroyed in the Camp Fire five years ago.

This may be a positive thing, according to the study.

“Areas of previous wildfires experienced higher housing growth after wildfires than areas that did not experience fires,” the study stated. “These numbers suggest that the occurrence of wildfires does not discourage development. Even if another fire is unlikely to occur in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire due to fuel shortages, areas of previous wildfires could burn again within years or decades, depending on the type.” Vegetation.”

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Over the past 50 years, housing growth has far outpaced population growth in the United States, with smaller household sizes and a greater number of second homes, the report said.

“Concurrently, the area burned has increased dramatically as a result of fuel accumulation, human ignition, and, in the west, early spring snowmelt and extended droughts,” the study said.

The place where you build things

The type of plants surrounding your home is important. According to the study, the proportion of plant species within 0.6 miles of a home was a “significant predictor of loss.”

Homes in evergreen and mixed forests were more likely to be destroyed in the event of a wildfire. Fires in the treetops of the forest are more intense and can disperse embers that ignite homes farther away from the fire front.

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The rate of destruction of homes affected by bush fires was much lower than by forest fires, but the total area burned by grass and grassland fires was much larger. According to the study, 67% of the areas burned in forest fires were covered by grass or brush. Only 33% of the land burned by wildfires was in forests.

“Houses surrounded by forests are more likely to be destroyed when forest fires occur, because forest fires are often very intense,” Radeloff said. “But the area burned each year in grass and shrubs is much larger than in forest fires. That’s why grass and shrub fires destroy more homes.”

“Grassland fuels can recover within a few years after a fire to the point that that area can burn again,” he continued.

Location is also important. According to the study, nearly 70% of the homes destroyed by wildfires were in the West.

In the east, more than 80% of homes lost to wildfires were located in forest. Conversely, 79.5% of buildings destroyed in wildfires were covered by grass or bush.

“Our results highlight that homeowners and communities in the NUI have experienced frequent wildfires in recent years,” the authors wrote. “In many areas of the Central UI, it’s not a matter of if wildfires will happen, but when.”

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Protecting property from forest fires

Coordinated actions between homeowners, builders, communities and public agencies could limit the loss of homes and lives in the future, the authors said.

The proposals in the study include the following:

  • Hardening houses for fire.
  • Reduce ignition, especially during high wind events, by improving electrical grids and using proactive electrical shutdowns.
  • During fires, authorities must predict the likely direction of the fire path and alert residents immediately.
  • Reducing invasive and fire-prone species and preventing them from eliminating native plants.
  • Maintain defensible space around buildings.
  • Cut more fire breaks to slow the spread of fires.
  • Use the tips at Firewise USA.

“It would be wise to limit future development in areas that are highly vulnerable to fires,” Radeloff said. “However, there are already millions of homes in the UI area, and homeowners can do a lot to strengthen their homes so they can survive a fire if one occurs.”

They also suggested legislative and forest conservation efforts to reduce the number of threatened homes.

“If the policy goal is to reduce risks to newly developed homes, this could be achieved through more stringent building standards and land use planning to avoid building in areas where fires are more likely to occur.”

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