Science + Technology

Fireproofing Homes Dramatically Reduces the Spread of Forest Fires, Scientists Report

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Why do some forest fires spread rapidly over large areas,destroying and damaging many homes, while others are contained with minimaldamage?

New research shows a major factor is whether homes arefireproofed — not just yours, but those of your neighbors as well.

"There is actually more flammable material in a house persquare yard than in a forest," said Michael Ghil, UCLA distinguished professorof climate dynamics and geosciences and co-author of the research, which will be published in the Sept. 4 printedition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and iscurrently available online.

"It makes atremendous difference whether you fireproof your home or not," Ghil said."Neighborhoods where homes are fireproofed suffer significantly less damagethan neighborhoods where they are not."

"Our study showsthat fireproofing of homes is important not only for the houses, but also forthe forest," said Ghil, who is a member of the Institute of theEnvironment and the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCLA, witha joint appointment in geosciences at France's Ecole Normale Suprieure. "We looked systematically for the first timeat both the dwellings and at the forest. When you fireproof houses, not only doyou help preserve those houses, but you also help limit the spread of fires toa much smaller area."

Ghil and hisco-authors modeled the spread of fires and studied data from forestecosystems in Colorado, Montana,New Mexico, Utah,Washington and Wisconsin. They addressed both the houses and the trees in a unifiedway for the first time.

"Many people seemto have a fatalistic attitude and don't understand that it really matterswhether you fireproof your home, and whether your neighbors do," Ghil said."The spread of forest fires is not just an act of God. Fireproofing houses canmake an enormous difference in whether a fire sweeps through a community ornot."

As the density ofnon-fireproofed houses increases, the chances of the neighborhoods burningincrease dramatically, Ghil said.

Many regions in the United States have experienced along period of severe drought, which increases the flammability of the forest,Ghil noted. Other factors in thespread of forest fires include vegetation (if it is drier, the chancesof a fire spreading increase) and wind intensity and direction.

Homes built in thehills, near natural vegetation or in other parts of what is commonly called the "wildland-urbaninterface" are very common inthe United Statesand account for well over one-third of all housing.

Co-authors of theresearch are Vassilis Spyratos, a graduate student at France's Ecole Normale Suprieure, and researcher PatrickBourgeron, a fellow at the Institute ofArctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

UCLA is California's largestuniversity, with an enrollment of nearly 37,000 undergraduate and graduatestudents. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 300 degreeprograms and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadthand quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuingeducation and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awardedthe Nobel Prize.

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