With climate-driven increases in wildfires in the western U.S., it is imperative to understand how the risk to homes is also changing nationwide. Here, we quantify the number of homes threatened, suppression costs, and ignition sources for 1.6 million wildfires in the United States (U.S.; 1992–2015). Human-caused wildfires accounted for 97% of the residential homes threatened (within 1 km of a wildfire) and nearly a third of suppression costs. This study illustrates how the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which accounts for only a small portion of U.S. land area (10%), acts as a major source of fires, almost exclusively human-started. Cumulatively (1992–2015), just over one million homes were within human-caused wildfire perimeters in the WUI, where communities are built within flammable vegetation. An additional 58.8 million homes were within one kilometer across the 24-year record. On an annual basis in the WUI (1999–2014), an average of 2.5 million homes (2.2–2.8 million, 95% confidence interval) were threatened by human-started wildfires (within the perimeter and up to 1-km away). The number of residential homes in the WUI grew by 32 million from 1990–2015. The convergence of warmer, drier conditions and greater development into flammable landscapes is leaving many communities vulnerable to human-caused wildfires.more »
The changing risk and burden of wildfire in the United States
Recent dramatic and deadly increases in global wildfire activity have increased attention on the causes of wildfires, their consequences, and how risk from wildfire might be mitigated. Here we bring together data on the changing risk and societal burden of wildfire in the United States. We estimate that nearly 50 million homes are currently in the wildland–urban interface in the United States, a number increasing by 1 million houses every 3 y. To illustrate how changes in wildfire activity might affect air pollution and related health outcomes, and how these linkages might guide future science and policy, we develop a statistical model that relates satellite-based fire and smoke data to information from pollution monitoring stations. Using the model, we estimate that wildfires have accounted for up to 25% of PM 2.5 (particulate matter with diameter <2.5 μm) in recent years across the United States, and up to half in some Western regions, with spatial patterns in ambient smoke exposure that do not follow traditional socioeconomic pollution exposure gradients. We combine the model with stylized scenarios to show that fuel management interventions could have large health benefits and that future health impacts from climate-change–induced wildfire smoke could approach projected overall increases more »
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- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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- National Science Foundation
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