Understanding wildfire hazards in the Eastern Edwards Plateau
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Trends indicate that wildfires have become larger and more intense over the past few decades. Experts suggest this is due to multiple factors including long-term shifts in land use that disrupt the balance of fuels and fire regimes. Research predicts that climate change will exacerbate this trend but will do so in spatially variable ways across the globe, causing increases in fire activity for some regions and decreases for others. In the United States, increased wildfire activity combined with the rapid expansion of residential development in fire-prone land necessitate billions of dollars in suppression efforts every year to protect human lives and property. The confluence of these issues has catalyzed momentum for communities to actively participate in mitigation at the local level. Yet, the precursor to developing effective solutions is to understand the unique environmental and social components of wildfire hazards at local and regional scales and how these components influence the deleterious impact of fire. This thesis takes a case study approach to understanding and communicating wildfire hazard potential in the Edwards Plateau ecoregion of central Texas. Wildfire simulations were conducted at the regional scale to quantify the magnitude of predicted fire behaviors under various spatial and temporal conditions. Simulations were also conducted within two focal communities to illuminate how patterns of wildfire susceptibility overlap with residential development. Finally, an investigation was made into the emergency response infrastructure and mitigation strategies adopted by each of the focal communities. As a result of simulations under drought conditions, forty-four percent of the study area exhibited flame lengths over eleven feet and ninety-six percent of the tree canopy exhibited crown fire activity. Simulations also revealed an increased potential for crown fire activity and extreme flame lengths along the heavily-populated Balcones Escarpment. Third, physical forms of communities appeared to influence the spatial distribution of burn susceptibility. Finally, the infrastructure and practices of the surrounding region impacted community resilience to wildfire hazards. While these findings are specific to the eastern Edwards Plateau, they showcase how mixed methods can be used to build a comprehensive wildfire hazard assessment for a community.