The Pulse

In the hot seat: Development, climate leads to increased risk of wildfires near NC cities and suburbs

By: - May 24, 2023 10:48 am

Image: AdobeStock

More than 2.1 million homes in North Carolina lie within the “wildland urban interface” — populated areas on the fringe of forests, scrub and other vegetation — and are at a greater risk of wildfires because of development patterns and climate change, according to a new national report by Climate Central, a science-based nonprofit organization.

North Carolina ranks fourth in the U.S. in the total number of homes in the wildland urban interface, also known as the WUI, behind California, Texas and Florida. 

This is the result of more people moving to the state, as well as where they’re settling. Since 1990, the state’s population has increased by 55%, according to the Carolina Population Center, mainly in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Sprawl has contributed to the increase in area of the WUI in North Carolina. The state ranks first in the nation in total area in the WUI: More than 30,000 square miles. That’s equivalent to 37% of the state.

Climate change exacerbates the risk of wildfire in these developed areas. Higher temperatures, drought and wind speed can combine with fuel — vegetation — to spark a fire. In addition to human carelessness or arson, “dry lightning,” which occurs without rain, can ignite a blaze. Peat fires on the North Carolina coast often occur because of dry lightning.

Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause serious health problems. Very fine particulate matter — PM 2.5 — can burrow deep into the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and cause heart and breathing problems. Chronic exposure to PM 2.5 can result in low birth weight and premature births; new studies suggest that it can also increase the risk of dementia. You can monitor the levels of PM 2.5 and other air pollutants at AirNow.

2.1 million — number of homes in North Carolina within the wildland urban interface

4 — rank of NC in the nation in total number of homes in the WUI

1 — rank of NC in the nation in square miles in the WUI

30,000 — Square miles in the WIU

37% — Percentage of the state in the WIU

12 — Average annual number of fire weather days in the Northern Piedmont

7 — In the Central Coastal Plain

9 — In the Southern Coastal Plain

214 — Number of fires in NC in May

1,488 — Acres burned in those fires

6,099 — Number of fires in 2022, the third-highest in this century

20,126 — Acreage burned in those fires

7,260 — Number of fires in 2007, the year of a historic drought

36,850 — Acres burned in those fires

63,547 — Acres burned in 2011, the year of several historic fires in Eastern and Coastal NC

In the western U.S. wildfire season is usually in the summer, but in the East, spring warming trends make the region more vulnerable earlier in the year.

In the eastern U.S., the Northern Piedmont of North Carolina had the greatest average change in fire weather days, based on data from 1973 to 2022. Now there are nearly two weeks of each year when climate and weather conditions are favorable for wildfires to occur.

The Central and Southern Coastal Plain also ranked in the Top 10 in the eastern US, and now have a week of average fire weather days per year.

So far this month there have been 214 fires in North Carolina, according to the NC Forest Service, burning nearly 1,500 acres. 

The Last Resort Fire, which started on March 24 in Tyrrell County, consumed 5,280 acres before it was fully contained on April 13.

The number of annual wildfires in North Carolina has steadily increased over the past two decades. Last year, there were 6,099 fires, above the 20-year average of 4,263, according to Forest Service data.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.