Chapman University science and engineering students have identified large population growth in California’s wildland-urban interfaces — the once-open areas between the wilderness and land development — increases the likelihood of wildfires at their doorsteps.
Contra Costa, Alameda and Riverside counties grew the most, placing more people and their homes at risk.
The student researchers conducting the study used Census data to determine that nearly one-third of residents living in these intersectional zones experienced continued high population growth. Nearly 13% of California’s total population lives in areas at-risk for wildfires like those threatening structures and scorching thousands of acres in Northern California, the Bay Area and near Yosemite National Park.
The increasing pressure from human activities at these intersections stretches over the past decade, according to Shenyue Jia, visiting scholar and postdoctoral researcher with the Institute for Earth, Computing, Human and Observing at Chapman University, who served as a mentor for the GCI project.
“In California, such pressures are largely driven by the increase of human populations and rapid real estate development in response to the housing crisis,” said Jia. “Understanding which regions of California’s wildland-urban interfaces have experienced significant population growth over the past decade can identify communities at greater risk of wildfire, especially when using the most recent demographic data.”
Fowler School of Engineering and Schmid College of Science and Technology students studied population growth patterns in their two-year project for Chapman University’s Grand Challenges Initiative (GCI).
The research is now influencing how firefighters anticipate and respond to the spread of wildfires in regions with such expansions at the edge of wildlands, after the students presented their findings at the 2022 Fire and Climate Conference. More than 250 firefighters, public health officials and land managers attended the international gathering prior to the start of California’s fire season. The group is now working on a peer-reviewed journal submission to share their findings.