Public Release: 

UI and WSU to help communities prepare for, recover from wildfires

$2.8 million effort to focus on fire location, severity and recovery

Washington State University

MOSCOW, Idaho-More than 6,000 fires have burned more than a million acres in the Northwest so far in 2015, with experts predicting continuing severe wildfires in coming years.

To help Northwest communities prepare for the future, University of Idaho and Washington State University researchers are studying ways to increase communities' ability to withstand and recover from wildfires with the support of a new $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

An interdisciplinary research team will focus on improving models that predict where fires are likely to occur, how severe they will be and whether they are likely to produce post-fire floods and landslides. The team will then create a virtual early warning system to help identify particularly vulnerable communities and ecosystems in the region.

The researchers will work closely with an advisory team of academic, government and industry stakeholders to help translate the research results into action plans for communities at risk.

The project is led by Crystal Kolden, assistant professor in the UI Department of Geography and a faculty member in the university's Center for Resilient Communities (CRC). The team includes nine faculty members from UI's College of Science, College of Natural Resources, College of Art & Architecture and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, as well as four faculty members across three colleges from Washington State University.

The research is particularly critical in the Northwest, where recent wildfire seasons have broken records thanks to contributing factors such as drought, insect damage to forests and changing human behaviors.

In 2014, the Carlton Complex near Wenatchee, Washington, became the largest wildfire in recorded history for the state, burning 400 square miles and 300 homes. In 2013, large wildfires near Boise denuded hillsides of vegetation and led to post-fire flood and mudflow events that threatened the Anderson Ranch Reservoir and dam, which store water for agricultural needs in southern Idaho.

The project's interdisciplinary approach speaks to the integrated nature of the research, Kolden said, which is necessary to effectively address the complex issue of wildfires.

"By improving our understanding of how compounding disturbance factors, such as drought and insects, contribute to wildfire growth and severity; how wildfires translate to post-fire hazards such as floods, landslides and mudflows; and what social factors contribute to community vulnerability to wildfire-induced hazards, we can develop vulnerability maps and early warning systems for the region," Kolden said. "This will allow us to work with land managers and community planners to develop more holistic mitigation and adaptation strategies."

Lilian Alessa, a professor in the UI College of Art & Architecture and director of the CRC, said the project reflects a needed shift toward integrated science.

"Our affiliated faculty, like Crystal, exemplify the commitment the CRC has not only to advancing the well-being and vitality of Idaho and her citizens, but also to contributing to actionable science across the nation," Alessa said.

Alessa is one of the project's co-principal investigators, along with UI faculty members John Abatzoglou and Jeff Hicke in the Department of Geography.

Jennifer Adam in WSU's Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture (VCEA) is another co-PI and leads the project's WSU team with support from the Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach. Adam is the lead of BioEarth, a modeling platform that will be improved for wildfire. The WSU team also includes Mingliang Liu in VCEA, Jon Yoder in the School of Economic Sciences and Chad Kruger, who is director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Other UI faculty members on the research team include John Anderson in the UI Department of Virtual Technology and Design, Erin Brooks in Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Travis Paveglio in Conservation Social Sciences, and Andrew Kliskey and Alistair Smith in Forest, Range and Fire Sciences.

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