Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk: Research Article

The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the area where houses and wildland vegetation meet or intermingle, and where wildfire problems are most pronounced. Here we report that the WUI in the United States grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 in terms of both number of new houses (from 30.8 to 43.4 million; 41% growth) and land area (from 581,000 to 770,000 km2; 33% growth), making it the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States. The vast majority of new WUI areas were the result of new housing (97%), not related to an increase in wildland vegetation. Within the perimeter of recent wildfires (1990–2015), there were 286,000 houses in 2010, compared with 177,000 in 1990. Furthermore, WUI growth often results in more wildfire ignitions, putting more lives and houses at risk. Wildfire problems will not abate if recent housing growth trends continue.

When houses are built close to forests or other types of natural vegetation, they pose two problems related to wildfires. First, there will be more wildfires due to human ignitions. Second, wildfires that occur will pose a greater risk to lives and homes, they will be hard to fight, and letting natural fires burn becomes impossible. We examined the number of houses that have been built since 1990 in the United States in or near natural vegetation, in an area known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and found that a large number of houses have been built there. Approximately one in three houses and one in ten hectares are now in the WUI. These WUI growth trends will exacerbate wildfire problems in the future.

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Volker C. Radeloff, David P. Helmers, H. Anu Kramer, Miranda H. Mockrin, Patricia M. Alexandre, Avi Bar-Massada, Van Butsic, Todd J. Hawbaker, Sebastián Martinuzzi, Alexandra D. Syphard, Susan I. Stewart. Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Mar 2018, 201718850; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1718850115. View Full Article PDF >