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Social vulnerability to large wildfires in the western USA

Palaiologou, Palaiologos, Ager, Alan A., Nielsen-Pincus, Max, Evers, Cody R., Day, Michelle A.
Landscape and urban planning 2019 v.189 pp. 99-116
fire behavior, forests, land tenure, national forests, prioritization, private lands, public lands, wildfires, wildland-urban interface, California, New Mexico, Washington (state)
Federal land managers in the US can be informed with quantitative assessments of the social conditions of the populations affected by wildfires originating on their administered lands in order to incorporate and adapt their management strategy to achieve a more targeted prioritization of community wildfire protection investments. In addition, these assessments are valuable to socially vulnerable communities for quantifying their exposure to wildfires originating on adjacent land tenures. We assessed fire transmission patterns using fire behavior simulations to understand spatial variations across three diverse study areas (North-central Washington; Central California; and Northern New Mexico) to understand how different land tenures affect highly socially vulnerable populated places. Transboundary wildfire structure exposure was related to populations with limited adaptive capacity to absorb, recover and modify exposure to wildfires, estimated with the Social Vulnerability Index using US Census unit data (block groups). We found geographic heterogeneity in terms of land tenure composition and estimated fire exposure. Although high social vulnerability block groups covered small areas, they had high population and structure density and were disproportionately exposed per area burned by fire. Structure exposure originated primarily from three key land tenures (wildland-urban interface, private lands and national forests). Federal lands proportionately exposed, on an area basis, populated places with high social vulnerability, with fires ignited on Forest Service administered lands mostly affecting north-central Washington and northern New Mexico communities.