Fighting Fire With Fire
By Brett Bralley
Scientists with San José State’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center are working together — and faster than ever before — to holistically treat the wildfire problem in the western U.S. and beyond.
Editors' note: This is the first of a two-part series in Washington Square examining the interdisciplinary approach to wildfire research at San José State University.
At the smoldering tail end of another record-setting season of wildfires, Californians have become intimate with their destruction. As of Nov. 18, more than 8,300 fire incidents have been reported by Cal Fire — consuming more than 3 million acres.
So what happens after each burn? How do individuals, communities and landscapes recover? Or, perhaps an even better question: What should happen before the fires even start?
The answers are complex, as scientists with San José State’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC) know well. That’s because wildfires are more than flames and destruction; left in their wakes are transformed communities, changed individuals, new government policies and the devastating reality of the impact of climate change.
For Kate Wilkin, WIRC researcher and assistant professor of fire ecology, the key to finding the answers may partly lie in how we perceive fire in the first place.
Wildfires are an important, natural occurrence, she emphasized. When we extinguish smaller, harmless wildfires, we pave the way for the massive, catastrophic ones we experience every year.
“We don’t just have a wildfire crisis in California. We have a forest health crisis,” she explained.
“We have chosen a hands-off land management approach to many of our forests and woodlands, and what we’ve ended up with are really, really dense forests — and in some cases, woodlands that have become forests — because we have not been allowing a natural process to occur, which is fire.”
“We don’t just have a wildfire crisis in California. We have a forest health crisis.”
— Kate Wilkin
Kate Wilkin (right), WIRC researcher and assistant professor of fire ecology, with Jordan Reding, ’22 Ecology, who works in Wilkin’s lab, at a prescribed burn in Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel, California. Photo: DMT Imaging/Santa Lucia Conservancy
A tale of two disciplines
Wilkin wants to help Californians learn how to live with fire. She often works with communities in wildland-urban interface areas, which are where wild and rural landscapes intersect with more populated areas. She wants these communities to learn how to best manage their public and private lands. This might mean using prescribed fires — when a planned fire burns under controlled conditions in order to improve the biodiversity of the area or to eliminate fuels to prevent an eventual out-of-control, destructive fire.
“Whether it be for forest health or biodiversity, there is a lot of evidence that it is good when we allow these fires to burn,” added Wilkin.
She recommended that households in wildland-urban interface areas also create “defensible zones” around their homes. Those are areas around dwellings where much of the ignitable foliage — which fire scientists refer to as “fuels” — is minimal or nonexistent.
But not everyone is on board with measures like setting nearby land on fire or allowing small fires to burn with close monitoring, especially when smoke and ash taint enough sunny days as it is. And community members may not have the desire or resources to cut down trees or redo their landscapes.
So to accomplish her mission, Wilkin is working with Amanda Stasiewicz, WIRC wildfire social scientist and assistant professor of wildfire management and policy.
Kate Wilkin, WIRC researcher and assistant professor of fire ecology.
Amanda Stasiewicz, WIRC wildfire social scientist and assistant professor of wildfire management and policy.
“They want to live responsibly on their landscape and help prevent fires, but that can change the reason why they even live where they live.”
— Amanda Stasiewicz
“A lot of people would describe the fire problem, especially in California, as a people problem,” Stasiewicz explained. “A lot of that comes from the need to get both agencies and organizations to work more efficiently — but also the need to get the public on board.”
Stasiewicz has interviewed and surveyed community members in wildland-urban interface areas across the western U.S. Her findings? Getting residents to make changes to their landscapes can be a hard sell.
“It can be difficult for folks to grapple with something like that,” she shared. “Maybe they came to a certain area to retire. They moved to that area for the beautiful woods around the home, and now we’re telling them to take down a bunch of trees because of fire risk.”
“It starts to create tension for some people,” she continued. “They want to live responsibly on their landscape and help prevent fires, but that can change the reason why they even live where they live.”
It has to do with changing the mentality around preparing for wildfires, she noted. And one of the ways to accomplish this is through establishing community leaders who can help come up with a plan — and not just for fire management, but for fire response scenarios, including evacuation routes and back-up plans, so that an entire community can be on the same page.
The collaboration between Wilkin and Stasiewicz is just one example of WIRC’s interdisciplinary approach to wildfire science. In fact, the two are among five SJSU scientists from a number of disciplines, including meteorology, engineering, social sciences and ecology, who were hired between August 2020 and January 2021 — a move that established WIRC the largest academic wildfire interdisciplinary research center in the country.
Because each member of the WIRC team holds certain expertise, the scientists bring their knowledge together to tackle the complex wildfire problem. Combining those different strengths is how real change can take place, emphasized Wilkin.
“That’s what brought me to San José State,” she said. “I wanted to have those conversations with scientists outside of my field, so that together we could come up with those ‘eureka’ moments.”
Craig Clements, director of WIRC and professor of meteorology. Photo: Robert C. Bain
Blazing new trails
Now, WIRC researchers can take their collaborative approach to another level, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation awarded in August, which designated WIRC as an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC).
The designation means San José State can partner with industry and government stakeholders to determine research priorities — and that it can move through the research process at an unprecedented speed.
Typically, the academic research process can require months of waiting for funding and approval. But as an IUCRC, funding is immediately available and research can start as soon as it’s approved by partnering stakeholders, which include San Diego Gas & Electric Company; Pacific Gas & Electric Company; Southern California Edison; Technosylva, Inc.; Jupiter Intelligence, Inc.; State Farm Insurance; CSAA Insurance Group; and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; among others.
Those IUCRC partners have a vested interest in pushing research forward, which makes the partnership a game changer, said Craig Clements, director of WIRC and professor of meteorology.
“This is transformative for our faculty and students in terms of what we can accomplish,” he said. “Utilities and other industry stakeholders are actually pushing wildfire science forward faster than the federal government. They’re ahead of the game.”
Joaquin Ramirez is principal consultant with stakeholder Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company that assists management agencies like Cal Fire during fire season. In 2020, they offered Cal Fire support with more than 9,000 fires.
He pointed out that “an all-hands job is needed, starting from supporting citizens that understand that we have to live with fire in a smarter way — and that we need to support scientists as much as we support our firefighters.”
“Utilities and other industry stakeholders are actually pushing wildfire science forward faster than the federal government. They’re ahead of the game.”
— Craig Clements
Hope for the future
Stasiewicz agrees with Ramirez’s assessment, particularly with the call for citizen support. Because even if she does get buy-in from communities to enact change, there still remains another glaring issue: a lack of resources.
“There are those who would say private property owners and private landowners living in fire-prone areas should be taking care of all of this themselves,” she said.
“But the truth of the matter is that not everybody has the financial ability. Or those who do might not have the physical ability to get the job done. So where does that assistance come in?”
Funding needs to be coming from government agencies to help communities accomplish these tasks, Stasiewicz emphasized.
“Our organizational and governmental frameworks are not shifting quickly enough for the people on the ground who are faced with fire risk.”
Despite the obstacles, Stasiewicz has hope. She’s inspired by the resiliency demonstrated by so many community members in fire-prone areas.
“These people are in tears about the fire situation and not being able to keep up with the pace with managing risk either financially or physically, or because of policies and agencies not changing quickly enough for their needs. But you just see them keep going. They don’t give up. They keep making incremental changes, despite this adversity.”
That attitude is what keeps her moving forward and looking for creative solutions to what she calls California’s “wicked problem.”
“That’s why I love doing this work. Through more studies, we can find ways to bring more people and more thinkers together to find pathways forward.”
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Top photo: Wildfire Research Interdisciplinary Center (WIRC)/Scientists with SJSU's WIRC at Milford, California, this summer observing the Dixie Fire.