Jump to Main Content
Wildfire exposure to the wildland urban interface in the western US
- Ager, Alan A., Palaiologou, Palaiologos, Evers, Cody R., Day, Michelle A., Ringo, Chris, Short, Karen
- Applied geography 2019 pp. 102059
- death, disasters, fire behavior, forest management, forests, fuels, fuels (fire ecology), geography, governance, land management, landscapes, national forests, prediction, prioritization, prototypes, public lands, risk, simulation models, wildfires, wildland, wildland-urban interface, Western United States
- Predicting wildfire disasters presents a major challenge to the field of risk science, especially when fires propagate long distances through diverse fuel types and complex terrain. A good example is in the western US where large tracts of public lands routinely experience large fires that spread from remote wildlands into developed areas and cause substantial structure loss and frequently fatalities. In this paper we provide the first comprehensive assessment of where public wildlands potentially contribute wildfire exposure to communities in the 11 western US states. We used simulation modeling to map and characterize the composition of the source landscapes (firesheds) and recipient communities in terms of fuels, fire behavior and forest management suitability. The information was used to build a prototype investment prioritization framework that targets highly exposed communities where forest and fuel management activities are feasible. We found that simulated wildfires ignited on national forests can potentially affect about half of the communities in the western US (2560 out of 5118), with 90% of exposure affecting the top 20% of the communities (n = 516). Firesheds within national forests, defined as areas that have the potential to expose communities to fire, were estimated at 35 million ha (62% of the total national forest area), and were almost three times larger than the affected community lands. Large contiguous areas of wildfire transmission were evident on a number of national forests. Only 22% of the fireshed area is forested, fire-adapted, and lies within land management designations that allow mechanical fuels management. The methods demonstrate how cross-boundary exposure can be factored into prioritizing federal investments in hazardous fuels reduction on national forests in concert with community protection measures. The results can also help scale wildfire governance systems to match the geography of risk from large wildfire events, which augments existing assessments that do not explicitly identify the source of risk to communities.