USGS Western Ecological Research Center

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Every year, wildfires devastate the landscapes of Southern California from Los Angeles to San Diego. Why do some communities burn, and some don't? USGS is analyzing fire patterns at the wildland-urban interface (WUI) for clues to help cities balance their management of fire hazards and natural resources.

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Since the mid-20th century, Southern California has seen one or more massive wildfires each decade, with an average of 500 homes destroyed per year. Despite increased funding for fire suppression and vegetation modification activities, fire impacts are becoming worse with each successive decade. In 2001-2010 alone, the region saw nearly 10,000 residential structures damaged or destroyed. Economic losses continue.

The USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) is studying the wildfires that devastate this economically important region. Regardless of cause, wildfires are driven by complex but predictable factors. Our goal is to understand the key factors that lead to housing loss and habitat loss.

The Southern California Wildfire Risk Scenario Project is led by WERC fire ecologist Jon Keeley, and this international team of landscape ecologists, biologists, geographers and economists are examining data from hundreds of thousands of burned acres for patterns in fire frequency and housing loss, asking the crucial question: “Why do some communities burn, and some don’t?”

Through the analysis of housing, powerline, vegetation, topographic and wind patterns at Southern California’s wildland-urban interface (WUI) -- the edge where wildland vegetation intersects with urban communities -- the team seeks to clarify which factors actually drive fire risks to residential communities. A computer model built from this data will then allow users to evaluate wildland management and residential land use planning options and to forecast scenarios that best minimize fire risk while maintaining biodiversity.

The model and findings will be shared with state and local officials, helping agencies and citizens understand the factors and actions which can minimize fire risk to their communities and wilderness areas. With the help of USGS natural hazards and ecosystems science, Southern California communities can take a giant leap towards learning to live with fire.

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