Compounded heat and fire risk for future U.S. populations

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Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme events, resulting in social and economic challenges. I examined recent past (1971–2000), current and near future (2010-2039), and future (2040-2069) fire and heat hazard combined with population growth by different regions and residential densities (i.e., exurban low and high densities, suburban, and urban low and high densities). Regional values for extreme fire weather days varied greatly. Temperature and number of extreme fire weather days increased over time for all residential density categories, with the greatest increases in the exurban low-density category. The urban high-density category was about 0.8 to 1 °C cooler than the urban low-density category. The areas of the urban and suburban density categories increased relative to the exurban low-density category. Holding climate change constant at 1970-2000 resulted in a temperature increase of 0.4 to 0.8 °C by 2060, indicating future population increases in warmer areas. Overall, U.S. residents will experience greater exposure to fire hazard and heat over time due to climate change, and compound risk emerges because fire weather and heat are coupled and have effects across sectors. Movement to urban centers will help offset exposure to fire but not heat, because urban areas are heat islands; however, urban high-density areas had lower base temperatures, likely due to city locations along coastlines. This analysis provides a timely look at potential trends in fire and heat risk by residential density classes due to the expansion and migration of US populations.

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