SJSU Hosts “The Burn and Beyond: Wildfires, Drought and Environmental Justice” Webinar

San José State University brings together experts from academia, government and industry to discuss critical issues facing California today — wildfires and drought, and how they disproportionately impact historically disadvantaged communities.

On September 16, SJSU will host “The Burn and Beyond: Wildfires, Drought, and Environmental Justice” virtual webinar to address the problems and potential solutions from 2 to 3:15 p.m.

Register here

San José State University President Mary A. Papazian will moderate the discussion.

“Often, it seems as though some of our communities do not receive the attention and care that other communities enjoy and take for granted during environmental crises,” said Papazian. “Given the events that have unfolded nationally these past two years related to systemic racism and the disparities in how people are treated by our institutions, this event could not be more timely or urgent.”

U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Santa Clara Valley Water District CEO and Vice President of the California NAACP Rick Callender, and SJSU Associate Professor and Director of the Human Rights Institute William Armaline will participate in the discussion.

“Cycles of drought and wildfire are worsening in California and neighboring regions in no small part due to climate change, threatening the survival of our precious communities and delicate ecosystems,” said Professor Armaline.

“Such threats are also challenging to human rights and the ability for Californians to enjoy the fundamental security and human dignity that everyone deserves. We at the SJSU HRI are ecstatic to join our colleagues and local public agencies to investigate the problems and potential solutions to these incredible social and ecological challenges.”

SJSU’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC) is on the cutting edge of wildfire research in California.

Learn more about SJSU’s research and work related to wildfires:

SJSU Establishes the Nation’s Largest Interdisciplinary Research Center in the Read about San José State’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at SJSU

NSF Grant to Accelerate Wildfire Research at SJSU

SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

Craig Clements, director of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, with a truck equipped for wildfire surveillance. Photo by Robert C. Bain

Wildfire research at San José State University is about to move faster than ever before — and in partnership with key industry and government stakeholders — thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF grant awards the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC) the designation of an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC), making it part of a program designed to accelerate the impact of research by establishing close relationships with industry innovators, government leaders and world-class academic teams.

WIRC will be the only IUCRC in the U.S. focusing on wildfire research. 

Functioning as an IUCRC will allow wildfire research at SJSU to move at an unprecedented speed, explained Craig Clements, director of WIRC and professor of meteorology. Typically, the academic research process can require months of waiting for funding and approval. In this case, funding is available and projects can start as soon as the stakeholders approve.

WIRC will partner with a board of industry innovators and government agencies, including: San Diego Gas & Electric Company; Pacific Gas & Electric Company; Southern California Edison; Technosylva, Inc.; Jupiter Intelligence, Inc.; State Farm Insurance; CSAA Insurance Group; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and others.

Those members will each contribute an annual fee of $50,000, which will allow them to work directly with WIRC faculty to determine research goals, share industry data and prioritize the most pressing needs in the area of wildfire research. In addition to annual membership fees, the NSF provides $750,000 over a five-year period.

“This is going to be transformative for our faculty and students in terms of what we can accomplish,” said Clements. “And the members will benefit because they will get access to research results before anyone else. Our students will get to interact with industry and government members, and members get to interact with our talent pool.”

WIRC has identified five initial key areas of research in which it will engage partners, focusing on both physical and social science aspects of wildfire research, according to its proposal submitted to the NSF. Those areas include:

Fire weather and coupled fire-atmosphere modeling and forecasting: In order for industry and government members to make the best fire management decisions, WIRC will prioritize learning how fire interacts with the atmosphere and across complex terrain. 

Fire behavior monitoring and modeling: As remote sensing and long-wave infrared technologies have advanced, WIRC plans to conduct scientific measurements of real-time wildfire data for the first time — which can then be shared with scientists and fire managers around the world as well as contribute to more accurate fire predictions. 

Wildfire management and policy: How individuals and communities respond to wildfires varies. WIRC will expand its research on how social and behavioral factors contribute to evacuation plans and trust in wildfire management. Additionally, researchers will examine barriers to prescribed fire use on private lands and residential areas. 

Climate change and wildfire risk: As climate change continues, wildfire locations, frequencies, intensities, size and duration will change, too. Researchers will produce detailed information on how climate change has influenced wildfire behavior in the past and how it will likely impact the future. 

STEM fire education and workforce development: In the past, wildfire experts have typically been firefighters. But today, wildfire expertise is interdisciplinary and includes land management agencies, nonprofits, teachers, land-use planners, public health experts, landscape architects, building scientists, insurance agencies and more. WIRC wants to develop a wildfire training program for the next generation of fire-adapted professionals and communities. 

SJSU researchers will work with the U.S. Forest Service Fire Science Lab to train community teachers, park rangers and outdoor educators so that they can teach residents in fire-prone ecosystems how to be more fire adaptive from a young age. WIRC also plans to train the next generation of wildfire experts through a wildfire minor at SJSU and by streamlining opportunities for underrepresented minority students to work with industry members. 

Clements will continue to serve as director of WIRC and primary investigator (PI) along with Amanda Stasiewicz, assistant professor of wildfire management, as co-director and co-PI.

Other leadership faculty include Adam Kochanski, co-PI and assistant professor of wildfire meteorology; Ali Tohidi, co-PI and assistant professor of fire dynamics and mechanical engineering; Kate Wilkin, co-PI and assistant professor of fire ecology; Mario Miguel Valero Pérez, senior personnel and assistant professor of wildfire remote sensing; and Patrick Brown, senior personnel and assistant professor of meteorology and climate science. 

Mohamed Abousalem, vice president for research and innovation at San José State, said the IUCRC designation is an excellent demonstration of the public impact that SJSU research is delivering to local and global communities.

“It is great to see the continuing support from the National Science Foundation to this critically important research program at San José State,” said Abousalem.

“With record-size wildfires currently ravaging through California’s ecosystems and communities, the value and impact of this collaborative research work could not be more timely. SJSU has the depth of expertise and the interdisciplinarity needed to understand, assess, mitigate and manage these wildfires through targeted partnerships with industry and government.”

SJSU Fire Weather Research Workshop Highlights Advances in Wildfire Prediction and Tracking

Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

Photo courtesy of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

California braces for yet another menacing fire season

Twice a month, San José State researchers collect samples from local vegetation, or “fuels”—and what they found for April was foreboding: Craig Clements, director of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, told KPIX 5 News last week.

“This is the time of year when the fuels should have the most moisture content of the season, and they’re actually the lowest we’ve ever measured for April,” he said in the news report.

But there’s hope: Fire prediction and tracking tools are advancing—a key takeaway from SJSU’s Fire Weather Research Workshop held April 8-9—and the university is leading the effort in providing fire management agencies with state-of-the-art resources to help curb the spread of wildfires.

The virtual event drew hundreds of researchers, students and fire management stakeholders from 20 countries to discuss the latest research and technology on fighting wildfires.

On the same day, California Gov. Gavin Newson announced a $536 million plan to prepare the state for the upcoming fire season. The California Legislature passed the package on April 12, and Newsom signed it April 13.

Intel from above the flames

Once a windstorm and an ignition come together, there’s little to be done.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop that fire,” explained Clements.

The best shot is to try to contain the fire with an “initial attack,” he continued. “That’s where remote sensing technology comes in, because the sooner you can detect the fire, the faster you can get into it.”

WRF-SFIRE is a forecast and modeling system—and a crucial resource to help curb the spread of wildfires—that relies on remote sensing technology. Developed and operated by SJSU, the system pairs data from satellite and infrared imaging with a simulation tool, and it combines a weather forecast model (Weather Research Forecast) with a fire-spread model (SFIRE).

During the workshop, faculty shared updates on WRF-SFIRE, including the addition of wildfire smoke dispersion forecasts, improved data input and analysis, more options for running simulations, and even a mobile-friendly interface.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor of wildfire modeling, shared how WRF-SFIRE now can model smoke behavior based on fire-spread predictions.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor of wildfire modeling, shared how WRF-SFIRE now can model smoke behavior based on fire-spread predictions.

But while tracking and prediction technology is advancing, not enough satellite and infrared imaging data is being gathered in day-to-day fire management operations, noted Miguel Valero Peréz, assistant professor of wildfire behavior and remote sensing at SJSU. He said that bringing that process up to speed is crucial and requires widespread collaboration.

“We need to collaborate with everyone—fire management agencies, academia, industry. We can only solve this problem if we work together,” Valero Peréz emphasized.

Solving a bigger problem

Newsom’s package may be able to help the state get ahead of the game as another dangerous fire season approaches. His plan provides funding to invest in workforce training, vegetation and terrain management, home protection and more.

But the effort to track conditions needs to be year-round, Clements told NBC Bay Area News.

“We need to be doing predictions for the conditions that would lead up to a severe fire season, so using the state-of-the-science modeling we have at San José State and running that operationally throughout the whole season versus a fire here and a fire there like we usually do,” he explained on the news report.

Joaquin Ramirez is principal consultant with Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company that partners with SJSU by using WRF-SFIRE to assist management agencies like Cal Fire during fire season. In 2020, they offered Cal Fire support with more than 9,000 fires.

Wildfires in 2020 California

Joaquin Ramirez of Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company, provided a look back at 2020 fires in California.

He said the workshop is proof of the exciting research and technology in progress, but that there’s still much to do when it comes to solving the wider problem.

“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.”

A community service

Clements said that while the workshop is about exchanging research and ideas, it’s also about providing information directly to those fighting fires on the front lines.

Because it’s free and several topics are covered in a shorter amount of time, it can be a good alternative to a conference, which might not always be an option for fire management agency employees.

“It’s part of our service to the community to host this workshop and to have it to be free to anyone,” he explained. “It’s about accessibility to the knowledge.”

WRF-SFIRE is available on mobile platforms

WRF-SFIRE is now accessible on mobile devices, a new addition to the system by wildfire researchers at SJSU.

Martin Kurtovich, senior utilities engineer for California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), said their staff participated to engage on important fire science topics—particularly wildfire modeling and predictions for forecasting future fire conditions.

He added, “I appreciate the important work being done at SJSU in not only conducting important research on California wildfires but also training future leaders in wildfire management.”

Learn more about SJSU’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center here.