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More Homes in Danger from Fire in Coming Decades, Research Shows

UC Merced researcher's newest paper for the California Energy Commission indicates higher risk as climate changes, growth increases and rural areas are developed.
July 31, 2012

The risk of losing your home to a wildfire could double within the next 40 years, according to modeling done by UC Merced Professor Anthony Westerling.

In a paper prepared for the California Energy Commission and released today, Westerling and coauthor Ben Bryant examine the effects of climate change, the state’s projected population growth, urban and rural development and land-use decisions on wildfires around the state in the coming century.

This is just one example of the research at UC Merced that will help sort out the puzzle that is climate change.

Smart-growth strategies for land use, such as concentrating growth in existing urban areas; educating people about and getting them to implement fireproofing practices such as creating defensible space around their homes; and fire-resistant home construction can all lead to more safety, especially in areas likely to be particularly threatened as the climate gets warmer.

“While policies to mitigate climate change could help to limit changes in wildfire, some level of additional warming is going to occur regardless, requiring adaptation,” Westerling said.  “Fire suppression, fuels management and development policies such as zoning and building codes are the primary means we have to manage wildfire risks.”

Increasingly, people are building homes in forested areas to escape congested urban areas. Yet the more land is developed in wilderness areas, the greater the chance for wildfires, the data shows, and the greater the risk that homes will be damaged.

But only up to a point.

At certain levels of urbanization, there are more people around to catch fires early, before they can spread, and the more development, the less vegetation to fuel a fire, the report says.

While climate change is expected to increase the probability of large wildfires throughout much of the state this century, the greatest risk is to the forested areas in the foothills and mountains of Northern California.  The danger there could triple by the end of the century, but much of the land in those areas is protected from development by the state and federal parks and forest service bureaus.

However, sprawling growth on the periphery of the Sierra Nevada – in places with forested areas like Tehama, Butte, El Dorado, Amador, Alpine, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties – means increased risk to residences.

And while most people assume coastal areas are safe from wildfires, Westerling’s analyses show that isn’t always true. It will depend on how growth develops there, near and in highly vegetated areas.

“Climate change is going to alter wildfire in our state,” Westerling said.  “How and where we build our homes, and how we manage the landscape around them, will shape our vulnerability to wildfire.”

Quick Facts: 
Climate change is likely to contribute to and increase in the number, frequency and intensity of California wildfires this century.
Depending on where you live, your home could be at greater risk of fire damage, too.
Much will depend on land-use decisions, growth patterns and people’s own initiative to practice fire-safety measures.