UC Berkeley’s Fire Research Group aims to spread information, not flames

How the Fire Research Group at UC Berkeley is tackling the problem of intensifying fires through interdisciplinary cooperation


On the problem of wildfires on the West Coast, how COVID-19 is complicating fire response, the interdisciplinary nature of fire research, and what you can do at home to prepare and respond to wildfires.

A picture of fires burning in California between Joshua Tree and Los Angeles from above. Photo by Patrick Campanale on Unsplash.

2020 Fire Season

In Fall 2020, the western United States again faced unprecedented wildfires, affecting communities all along the coast. These fires have forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, and poor air quality that can spread to impact entire states.

In California alone, over four million acres are estimated to have been burned by wildfires last year, with over 10,000 structures damaged and 31 fatalities. This follows a trend in recent years of increasingly warmer years and worse fires. In 2018, the Camp Fire broke out in Butte county, leading to 85 fatalities and becoming the deadliest wildfire in state history. In addition, six of the top 20 largest California wildfires fires occurred in 2020.

According to Professor Tarek Zohdi, Associate Dean for Post-Baccalaureate Programs in the College of Engineering and Director of the Fire Research Group (FRG), the primary reason why fire season seems to be getting worse is that our climate continues to get drier, leading to larger, uncontrollable fires. According to NOAA, the past five years have been the hottest on record, with nine of the 10 warmest years having occurred since 2005.

Correlation with COVID-19

In addition, the past year brought the unforeseen compounding disaster of COVID-19, which often interacts with wildfire fighting and prevention in interesting and unfortunate ways. Perhaps best exemplifying the conflicting best practices of the pandemic and wildfire precautions is the fact that to prevent the spread of COVID-19, health officials suggest that people meet others in outdoor settings as much as possible. Yet, when a wildfire occurs, poor air quality often forces nearby communities to stay indoors, where transmission of the virus is more likely to occur. To make things more complicated, as people make an effort to increase ventilation and airflow in buildings to fight COVID-19, come fire season, these same changes lead to worse air quality indoors.

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash.

Another consideration, according to Professor Zohdi, is that the masks which everyone has been wearing the past ten months to prevent COVID-19 transmission may not be the masks most effective against particulates created by wildfires, and that can be true in vice versa. Cloth masks are not reliable to protect the wearer from inhaling particulate air pollutants. In turn, N-95 masks with valves, which can provide protection from wildfire smoke, are not reliable to prevent the wearer from exhaling COVID-19 infected droplets.

Upon evacuation from a location threatened by a wildfire, people may struggle to find a safe place to stay. They may need to gather in shelters, which, being indoor spaces, are not ideal for preventing the spread of the virus. Again, in turn, needing social distancing in shelters is not ideal for helping house as many evacuated people as possible.

These, and many other factors influencing wildfires require interdisciplinary collaboration, with solutions requiring consideration from researchers, policy makers, and practitioners across areas ranging from public policy to ecology to physics.

California Fire Science Seminar Series

In 2018, Professor Zohdi led the launch of the FRG to develop and implement more effective engineering solutions for uncontrolled wildfires. The group is a collective of researchers from the College of Engineering, the Space Sciences Laboratory (Berkeley) and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. Together, they bring a wide range of expertise in engineering science, environmental science, policy, management, ecology and forestry to bolster research in fire science, mitigation, suppression, management and control.

Last summer, Professor Michael Gollner of the Berkeley Fire Research Lab and member of FRG, along with Professor Crystal Kolden and Professor Jeanette Cobian-Iñiguez from UC Merced, launched the California Fire Science Seminar Series. They were driven by a desire to see more interdisciplinary exchanging of ideas and collaborations in fire-related research, especially across university campuses.

The topics they covered included, among others:

  • How do we solve the “Wicked Problem?”: the State of Fire Science in California
  • Managing the Chemical Complexity of Wildland Fire Emissions in Highly Parameterized Air Quality Models
  • A Micro-Meteorological Perspective into Wildland Fire Dynamics
  • Post-fire Soil Carbon Dynamics: Implications on Movement of Particulate and Dissolved Pyrogenic Carbon
  • Fires, Air Pollution, and Public Health: A Remote Sensing-Based Perspective
  • Household Decision Making and Evacuation Behavior during Wildfires
Household Decision Making and Evacuation Behavior during Wildfires by Dr. Erica Kuligowski on Thursday, December 10th.

Hosted online due to the pandemic, the seminar series has seen great success, with over 1,000 unique attendees and an average of 150 viewers per week. “Fire is an inherently interdisciplinary problem,” said Professor Gollner. He and the other organizers made a point to seek out speakers from disciplines that are not often represented in the field of fire research, such as Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry at UC Merced, who gave a talk in November on black carbon’s redistribution in landscapes following fires.

While he stresses that there is no magic solution to the problem of wildfires, an area of fire prevention that especially excites Professor Gollner is a movement towards mitigation. According to him, better management of landscapes and working with communities will greatly help contain the effects of wildfires. He states, “Wildfires are a great opportunity because they are one of the few disasters that we can incredibly mitigate.” He highlights the importance of using prescribed burning, working especially with Native American tribes who used this technique before fire suppression techniques became popular, something that Professor Zohdi also agrees with.

“The only way to deal with lightning fires is to better manage landscapes and communities. We need more prescribed fire.” — Professor Gollner

What individuals at home can do to prepare for wildfires

Professor Zohdi’s advice for those in communities impacted by wildfires is to educate themselves on a route for evacuation and to take preventive measures to protect their house or power sources. This involves checking electrical equipment near their home for vegetation, making sure backup generators are in good condition, and stocking up on air filters. He also recommends installing an Air Quality Index (AQI) app that can tell you the air quality in your location.

“Fires are still going to come up to our communities. The number one thing we can do is better design there,” Professor Gollner states. “Engineers have a special role to make that happen. It’s not just technology. As we develop our modeling tools, look at past analysis of fires, we can start to answer some of the questions that insurance companies and policy makers can use for their solutions.” With proper management, he envisions a future where wildfires, while not obsolete, are able to be quickly managed without impacting populations.

“With a problem like this, if you want to get anything done, you have to find other people to work with. You can’t do everything yourself,” said Professor Gollner. “Everything is inherently interdisciplinary.”

Connect with Professor Zohdi and Professor Gollner. Learn more about the Fire Research Group at UC Berkeley or watch the seminars.



Berkeley Master of Engineering
Berkeley Master of Engineering

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