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Climate change and wildfire risk in an expanding wildland-urban interface: a case study from the Colorado Front Range Corridor

Abstract

Context Wildfire is a particular concern in the wildland–urban interface (WUI) of the western United States where human development occurs close to flammable natural vegetation. Objectives (1) Assess the relative influences of WUI expansion versus climate-driven fire regime change on spatial and temporal patterns of burned WUI, and (2) determine whether WUI developed in the future will have higher or lower wildfire risk than existing WUI. Methods We projected the spatial pattern of the WUI and its associated wildfire risk from 2005 to 2050 at 90-m spatial resolution and 5-year intervals in Colorado Front Range using CHANGE, a landscape change model that simulates land cover and land use change, natural vegetation dynamics, and wildfire in a unified framework. A total of four scenarios from a factorial design with static versus changing WUI and static versus changing fire regimes were simulated to examine the effects of WUI expansion and climate-driven fire regime change on burned area in the WUI. Results Both WUI expansion and fire regime change contributed to the increase of burned WUI, but fire regime change had a stronger influence. The effects of WUI expansion and fire regime change had a combined influence greater than the sum of their individual effects. This interaction was a result of projected WUI expansion into regions of higher wildfire risk than existing WUI. Conclusions The human footprint will continue to expand into wildland areas and must be considered along with climate effects when assessing the impacts of changing fire regimes in future landscapes.

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