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Wildfire & Debris Flow Simulation


Scientists who study natural hazards must be flexible and resourceful because they often deal with events out of their control. This study is a good example.

Debris flows are fast-moving landslides that cause deaths and damage around the world, particularly in areas with recent wildfires. Communities told to evacuate during a wildfire can later face numerous evacuations before possible debris flows. What factors play into a decision to evacuate, or not? Researcher Katherine Fox-Glassman at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions set out to tackle such questions by studying southern Californians a few weeks after an evacuation event (when the event is over but memories are fresh and reliable).

Debris flows were frequent in southern California until the study began, then stopped for what turned out to be longest stretch in years. The study waited; and filed for an extension. Still no debris flows. Meanwhile, the study focused on wildfire evacuation and the results (1 MB PDF) offer much insight into when people do – or don’t – evacuate in the face of wildfires.

Debris flows around southern California resumed a few months after the study concluded.

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