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  Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 23(8)

The role of defensible space for residential structure protection during wildfires

Alexandra D. Syphard A D, Teresa J. Brennan B and Jon E. Keeley B C

A Conservation Biology Institute, 10423 Sierra Vista Avenue, La Mesa, CA 91941, USA.
B US Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center, Three Rivers, CA 93271, USA.
C Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of California, 612 Charles E. Young Drive, South Los Angeles, CA 90095-7246, USA.
D Corresponding author. Email: asyphard@consbio.org

International Journal of Wildland Fire 23(8) 1165-1175 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF13158
Submitted: 16 September 2013  Accepted: 30 May 2014   Published: 14 October 2014

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With the potential for worsening fire conditions, discussion is escalating over how to best reduce effects on urban communities. A widely supported strategy is the creation of defensible space immediately surrounding homes and other structures. Although state and local governments publish specific guidelines and requirements, there is little empirical evidence to suggest how much vegetation modification is needed to provide significant benefits. We analysed the role of defensible space by mapping and measuring a suite of variables on modern pre-fire aerial photography for 1000 destroyed and 1000 surviving structures for all fires where homes burned from 2001 to 2010 in San Diego County, CA, USA. Structures were more likely to survive a fire with defensible space immediately adjacent to them. The most effective treatment distance varied between 5 and 20 m (16–58 ft) from the structure, but distances larger than 30 m (100 ft) did not provide additional protection, even for structures located on steep slopes. The most effective actions were reducing woody cover up to 40% immediately adjacent to structures and ensuring that vegetation does not overhang or touch the structure. Multiple-regression models showed landscape-scale factors, including low housing density and distances to major roads, were more important in explaining structure destruction. The best long-term solution will involve a suite of prevention measures that include defensible space as well as building design approach, community education and proactive land use planning that limits exposure to fire.


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