As the population of the United States continues to grow, so too does its Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). From 1990 to 2010, the size of the WUI grew by 33%, and the number of homes in these areas expanded by more than 41%. Furthermore, close to 99 million people now live in the WUI--or one-third of our population--which puts an estimated 46 million homes in 70,000 communities at risk from wildfire. It's clear that as wildfire impacts more residents in the WUI, it will escalate harm to health and property, businesses, infrastructure, and communities. So how did we get here? Let’s take a closer look.
What is the Wildland Urban Interface?
The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is an area where human development meets wildlands or undeveloped land. These areas can include parks, forests, rangelands, grasslands or other natural lands. This interface has been increasing since 1950 due to rapid urbanization which has led to a larger area being susceptible to wildfire risks (Veblen et al., 2000).
Why Is It Growing?
The increase in WUI has been largely attributed to changes in land use patterns and climate change (Seager et al., 2017). As populations continue to grow and expand into new areas of development near wildlands, they are increasingly exposed to potential wildfires. Climate change has also contributed significantly due to extreme heat waves which extend across longer periods of time leading to drier conditions that increase fire risk (Hessl et al., 2018). In addition, increased temperatures have caused plants and trees to become more flammable while making them less resistant to disease and pests. All this contributes heavily towards an increased chance for wildfires in these areas.
Wildfire Impacts on Health & Property
Wildfires pose a serious threat not only to human lives but also properties and businesses within WUI areas (McKenzie et al., 2020). Smoke from wildfires can cause air pollution which can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma attacks or even heart attacks for those with existing illnesses (UCSF Health Center, 2021). Exposure can also aggravate existing conditions such as allergies or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Furthermore, fire damage can result in costly repairs for homes or businesses depending on their proximity or severity of destruction.
As we've seen over recent years with some devastating disasters like California's Camp Fire disaster in 2018 that killed 85 people and destroyed 14 thousand homes—wildfires pose a real danger when they occur near developed areas like the WUI. With continued population growth and climate change leading towards drier conditions across much of North America, it is essential that proactive steps are taken now before it is too late. By understanding the risks associated with living in these areas combined with effective strategies such as regular brush clearing around homes and businesses—communities can be better prepared should disaster strike again soon.