Chief Scientist | Sage Underwriters
Alexandra D. Syphard Ph.D. is chief scientist at Sage Underwriters, and she also serves as an affiliate of the Conservation Biology Institute and adjunct professor at San Diego State University.
She has spent more than two decades analysing the ecological and social drivers and impacts of landscape change. Using a variety of mapping, statistical, and modelling approaches, Alexandra investigates how change has occurred in the past, how it is likely to occur in the future, and how different policy or management scenarios may impact ecological and social well-being.
For the last decade, Alexandra has concentrated intensely on wildfire risk to communities and identifying the best approaches for balancing fire risk reduction with biodiversity conservation. Her research also focuses on the interactions among wildfire patterns, land use change and urban growth, climate change, vegetation dynamics and biodiversity, invasive species, and species’ range shifts.
In this era of rapid global change, understanding how different drivers may alter future wildfire patterns is essential for anticipating impacts to ecosystems and human welfare. Through multiple empirical and modeling studies, we have found that both climate and land use change affect long-term spatial and temporal patterns of fire and structure loss – but there is substantial geographical variability in these relationships.
For example, due to differences in fire-climate relationships across California, future projections suggest that climate change will be a concern for driving large fires in the northern part of state, but not in southern California where human influence and fire weather are more of a concern.
On the other hand, some relationships apply across many regions. For example, climate, topography, and fuel variables tend to be most important in predicting the probability of large fires, whereas housing density and proximity to human infrastructure best explain locations of fire ignitions and structure loss probability.
One of the most consistently generalizable findings of our and others’ studies is that low-density housing has, and is projected to be, the greatest predictor for structures being destroyed in wildfires. This finding even extends to the 2017 and 2018 California wildfires that burned portions of high-density urban areas.
In summary, future wildfire patterns and impacts will depend not only upon the geographically specific influence of different drivers but also the extent to which these drivers are likely to change in different regions. Areas with increased low density rural housing, however, are consistently expected to experience more structure losses, even during periods of decreased large fire probabilities.