Wildland-urban fire disasters aren’t actually a wildfire problem

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Consider several of the most devastating fire disasters of the last century. In August 2023, the wildfire-initiated urban conflagration of Lahaina, Hawaii, damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures and killed 98 people. In December 2021, the Marshall Fire sparked conflagrations in Superior and Louisville, Colorado, destroying 1,084 structures and killing two. In September 2020, the Almeda Drive Fire in the communities of Talent and Phoenix, Oregon, destroyed 2,600 homes and killed three. In November 2018, the Camp Fire initiated ignitions in Paradise, California, destroyed 18,804 buildings, and killed 85. In November 2016, fires spread through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, destroying 2,460 structures and killing 14. These fire disasters burned in vastly different environments. But all had human causes (power lines contributed to at least three), were near communities, occurred during extreme wind events, then inflicted their damage as urban conflagrations. Almost all destruction occurred within the first 12 hours after ignition. These fires immediately overwhelmed wildland and structural firefighting efforts, which were largely ineffective during the initial and extreme phase of the fire. Further, all these fires occurred since 2016. It’s clear that structures and whole communities were vulnerable to ignition and burning—irrespective of what initiated the fires.

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