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Building loss in WUI disasters: Evaluating the core components of the wildland-urban interface definition

December 20, 2020
Accurate maps of the wildland–urban interface (WUI) are critical for the development of effective land management policies, conducting risk assessments, and the mitigation of wildfire risk. Most WUI maps identify areas at risk from wildfire by overlaying coarse-scale housing data with land cover or vegetation data. However, it is unclear how well the current WUI mapping methods capture the patterns of building loss. We quantified the building loss in WUI disasters, and then compared how well census-based and point-based WUI maps captured the building loss. We examined the building loss in both WUI and non-WUI land-use types, and in relation to the core components of the United States Federal Register WUI definition: housing density, vegetation cover, and proximity to large patches of wildland vegetation. We used building location data from 70 large fires in the conterminous United States, which cumulatively destroyed 54,000 buildings from 2000 through to 2018. We found that: (1) 86% and 97% of the building loss occurred in areas designated as WUI using the census-based and point-based methods, respectively; (2) 95% and 100% of all of the losses occurred within 100 m and 850 m of wildland vegetation, respectively; and (3) WUI components were the most predictive of building loss when measured at fine scales.