Stories From The Field

Assessing Fire Hazard Risk in Southern California

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Southern California is at great risk from wildfires because of its particular combination of weather, topography, and native vegetation, as well as the Santa Ana winds that appear in the spring and late fall. While wildfires are inevitable in this region, over the past few decades the fire risks—including the loss of life and property—have increased with enduring drought conditions and the encroachment of developments into fire-prone lands.


To analyze areas at risk from wildfire and their proximity to urban developments, as well as changes to these risks over time, the Global Ecosystem Center (GEC) used NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) land cover data sets from 1996, 2001, and 2005. C-CAP provides a nationally standardized source for accurate baseline information, and because all C-CAP data sets were created using the same criteria and standards, they can be compared against one another to document changes over multiple years. With these standardized data sets as a guide, GEC used additional archived Landsat imagery from 1984 and 2011 to evaluate the land cover over a longer time span.


The analysis, spanning 26 years of data, demonstrates that the region between Los Angeles and San Diego experienced the highest rates of urban growth, and many of the new developments are in areas at significant risk of fire. This information is being used to develop better strategies for land use management, natural resource management, and vulnerability.

Change areas between 1985 and 2011 superimposed on a fire hazard layer. Generally, most urban development (turquoise) is near high fire risk areas. The direction of the Santa Ana winds is shown with orange lines.
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