Surging wildfires across the globe are contributing to escalating residential losses and have major social, economic, and ecological consequences. The highest losses in the U.S. occur in southern California, where nearly 1000 homes per year have been destroyed by wildfires since 2000. Wildfire risk reduction efforts focus primarily on fuel reduction and, to a lesser degree, on house characteristics and homeowner responsibility. However, the extent to which land use planning could alleviate wildfire risk has been largely missing from the debate despite large numbers of homes being placed in the most hazardous parts of the landscape. Our goal was to examine how housing location and arrangement affects the likelihood that a home will be lost when a wildfire occurs. We developed an extensive geographic dataset of structure locations, including more than 5500 structures that were destroyed or damaged by wildfire since 2001, and identified the main contributors to property loss in two extensive, fire-prone regions in southern California. The arrangement and location of structures strongly affected their susceptibility to wildfire, with property loss most likely at low to intermediate structure densities and in areas with a history of frequent fire. Rates of structure loss were higher when structures were surrounded by wildland vegetation, but were generally higher in herbaceous fuel types than in higher fuel-volume woody types. Empirically based maps developed using housing pattern and location performed better in distinguishing hazardous from non-hazardous areas than maps based on fuel distribution. The strong importance of housing arrangement and location indicate that land use planning may be a critical tool for reducing fire risk, but it will require reliable delineations of the most hazardous locations.
Additional publication details
Housing arrangement and location determine the likelihood of housing loss due to wildfire