Climate change, population growth in rural areas and other factors could double the risk wildfires pose to homes within the next 40 years, according to a new UC Merced study.
The information is part of a report by UC Merced professor Anthony Westerling, prepared for the California Energy Commission.
In the paper, released Wednesday, Westerling and co-author Ben Bryant looked at the impacts 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.
"Climate change is going to alter wildfire in our state," Westerling said, in a press release from UC Merced. "How and where we build our homes, and how we manage the landscape around them, will shape our vulnerability to wildfire."
Although policies to deal with climate change could help, Westerling said some level of additional warming is going to occur regardless.
As a result, smart-growth strategies for land use, such as concentrating growth in existing urban areas, educating people about implementing fire-proofing practices, such as creating defensible space around their homes, will help lessen the threat.
Fire-resistant home construction would help, especially in areas likely to be particularly threatened as the climate gets warmer.
"Fire suppression, fuels management and development policies, such as zoning and building codes, are the primary means we have to manage wildfire risks," he said.
In addition, more people are building homes in forested areas. More developed rural land means a greater the chance for wildfires, the data shows, which increases the threat to the homes.
The study points out that with more people around, at certain levels of urbanization, the chances of suppressing a fire early also increase. With more development, there's also less vegetation to burn, the report points out.
Nancy Koerperich, chief of the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said she has yet to read Westerling's report.
As more people move to rural areas, Cal Fire's Koerperich said the challenges for evacuating them in the event of a wildfire will grow, particularly because there are fewer highways and freeways in those places.
"The more homes you have, if they don't maintain defensible space, we're going to be challenged with thicker vegetation," she said.
The risk of wildfires is the greatest in forests and foothills of Northern California. The study states that the danger there could triple by the end of the century, but much of that land's is under government government control so development is limited.
However, Westerling's study also found that sprawling growth on the periphery of the Sierra Nevada -- in places with forested areas such as Tehama, Butte, El Dorado, Amador, Alpine, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties -- means increased risk to those residences.
Coastal areas are no more safe from wildfires, depending on how growth develops there, near and in highly vegetated areas, Westerling said.