By Zach Rosen   |   December 19, 2019

Since the beginning of humanity, people have been using technology to understand and influence fire. Fire speaks to our primal nature yet remains an uncontrollable natural force and an inherent part of our ecosystem. As technology and civilization has increased over time, the role that fire plays in our lives continues to grow. Over the years, wildfire has become an ever-present force in our community. The management and prevention of fires is an ongoing part of our local conversation. The Strategic Environmental Research Initiative, or SERI-Fire, group within the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management of UCSB is one local organization using technology to provide an informed discussion on the topic.

This watercolor of landscape dynamics by Ethan Turpin is one of SERI-Fire’s ways of visualizing their findings

I recently spoke with Dr. Sarah Anderson, an associate professor at Bren with a background in political science, about the SERI-Fire program and its findings. Sarah is one of four main figures that compose SERI-Fire. Dr. Naomi Tague is a professor of hydrology and provides insight on the interaction between water, landscape, and fire. Dr. Max Moritz is an adjunct professor with a background in fire ecology and the statewide wildfire specialist within the UC Cooperative Extension.

Fire ecology is the study of the interaction between fire and the ecosystem, looking at the before and after-effects each one has on one another. Along with Sarah, Dr. Andrew Plantinga, a professor of Natural Resource Economics and Policy, brings an understanding of the people side of wildfire. How does regulation, economics, and political influence affect wildfire management and behavior? Together, these four provide a unique interdisciplinary approach to wildfire.

The 21st century has seen a trend towards de-urbanization, with people moving out of cities and inhabiting the surrounding land, including the more fire prone areas. SERI-Fire has found in one of their published studies that when fire occurs in these regions, this is often coupled with a demand for better fire management in those areas. In response, the local agencies may apply certain fire management projects. There is a trend towards putting fire breaks and fuel treatments closer to where these fires have already happened. In oversimplistic terms, a wildfire can be viewed as a big fuel treatment to the area it happened to. So applying fuel management to those areas may not represent the best approach towards preventing future fires.

To test different theories and scenarios, the SERI-Fire group uses a “fire-in-a-box” model on a computer program. This allows them to actually model fire management practices and see what effect they have on the fire, water, and carbon (plant life) cycles of the landscape. The fire-in-a-box model gives them an informed approach to how the natural landscape and human practices interact with one another. One of the benefits of having this simulator is that it also allows them to model different weather scenarios and probe into future effects certain practices may have. They can test a variety of fire management programs and see which ones may have a better potential for minimizing fire risks or providing optimal water and carbon levels in the landscape.

The grad students, post docs, and colleagues they have collaborated with through SERI-Fire have led to other spin-off thoughts and projects. Their work has also sparked interest beyond the academic realm. The different agencies around fire management and regulation are naturally interested in the group’s findings to better inform their practices. They have also found interest with organizations like Southern California Edison, who would like to know more about fuel management underneath utility lines and how often to manage them. Or insurance companies who just want to know how to lose less houses.

Sarah believes that art can play a key role in helping the public understand their findings. Over the years, the SERI-Fire group has worked with local artist Ethan Turpin on everything from watercolors that show landscape dynamics to fully immersive projection installations that place the viewer within a roaring fire. Their hope is that these works can help the public to reflect on the ongoing relationship between humanity and fire. While wildfire continues to affect us, we continue to affect it


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