Boreal Fires team

Boreal Fires study area. Green is boreal forest, red dots are UAF (top) and UAA (bottom) campuses, and yellow dots are potential Interior partner communities.

Researchers on the Boreal Fires team are working to increase community resilience to wildfire by developing outlooks for subseasonal-to-seasonal fire risk, by modeling fire spread and severity, and by improving understanding of the economics of fire management and of impacts of wildfire to ecosystem services. Research will cover the entire Alaskan boreal (see map); some specific research will focus on the Bonanza Creek Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) site near Fairbanks and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge outside of Anchorage, while other research locations will depend on the timing and location of wildfires during the project.

Boreal Fires researchers will use data collection, process studies, predictive modeling, and integrated analysis at a variety of spatial and temporal scales to address four goals:

Boreal Fires Goal 1: Produce seasonal fire outlooks by merging data on lightning probability and available fuels with seasonal climate forecasts. Improved seasonal fire outlooks will take the form of map layers and time series graphs indicating fire risk across Alaska’s relevant fire management zones over the course of the fire season, which will be a valuable tool for fire and resource managers. These outlooks will result from three related lines of inquiry. First, researchers will improve the accuracy of Alaska’s historic lightning database by incorporating changes to lightning detection over time, then work to determine which large-scale climate drivers (in particular patterns of convective precipitation) increase the likelihood of lightning storms, and test these findings through ground observations. Second, researchers will gather multiple sets of airborne hyperspectral data over the Bonanza Creek LTER over a period of several years and ground-truth it with field data, building a spectral library for use in better mapping the distribution, variability and available biomass of fuel types via satellite. The researchers will also examine the hyperspectral data in concert with satellite imaging to evaluate the influence of seasonality and snow cover duration on fuel conditions. Third, Boreal Fires researchers will study climate data to identify phenomena (such as sea surface temperature or sea ice area anomalies) that create atmospheric conditions conducive to fire weather in Alaska, and apply these findings to improve interpretation of subseasonal-to-seasonal weather forecasts. The research team will then combine these lightning, fuel and weather data streams into fire outlooks.

Boreal Fires Goal 2: Enhance active fire characterization, spread prediction, and severity assessment in the boreal through improved remote sensing, short-term weather data, and field measurements. By meeting this goal, the component will improve the ability of managers to predict fire behavior and contribute to improved suppression strategies. Researchers will opportunistically conduct hyperspectral overflights (either manned or via unmanned aerial vehicle) of active fires over multiple years to obtain a robust set of fire behavior data, which will be used to refine and calibrate satellite data. They will then use the data, including digital elevation models generated from hyperspectral imagery, to generate fire case studies, which they will evaluate to refine models of fire spread. At the same time, Boreal Fires scientists will work to improve assessment of fire severity by contrasting spectral indices (gathered as part of Goal 1) and field surveys of recent fires, including the key criteria of how much vegetation was consumed, how much duff remains, and how much mineral soil was exposed.

Boreal Fires Goal 3: Develop science-based options for improving wildfire management policy to maintain ecosystem service flows and foster community resilience. Using a two-part approach, the Boreal Fires team will provide information beneficial to multiple groups, including tribal leaders and residents of Interior Alaska subsistence communities, land and resource managers, and property owners in the expanding communities on the wildland-urban interface (WUI) in Southcentral Alaska. An Interior Alaska team will conduct a regional assessment around approximately 40 rural communities to catalog ecosystem services that may be vulnerable to wildfire. They will then develop intensive research partnerships with 2-3 rural communities impacted by wildfire within the previous 1-2 years to assess the consequences of and response to local wildfire. Focus group discussions and interviews with stakeholders will guide these regional and localized assessments. Existing data on land cover (e.g., fire history, habitat) and resources (wildlife distribution and abundance) will be used to facilitate a region-wide, spatially-explicit catalog of ecosystem services. This will in turn enable the team to identify ways that wildfires and fuels management can impact these services, and to recommend methods by which communities can enhance positive wildfire effects and minimize negative ones.

A second team will focus on fire prevention and suppression at the wildland-urban interface in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula. Researchers will model location, value, and vulnerability to wildfire of structures in the WUI, building on previous studies and an ongoing study of cost-effectiveness of fuels mitigation. They will conduct choice experiments asking respondents to select mitigation alternatives based on different costs, incentives, and risks, and will recruit volunteers to participate in local group field experiments. Researchers will then develop an economic model of mitigation and suppression costs and use it to run fire scenarios, which will generate data for use in evaluating how different policy options may generate different levels of property damage and suppression costs.

Boreal Fires Goal 4: Hire and train researchers and share results with academic audiences and stakeholders. The Boreal Fires component will make two faculty hires: a UAF geospatial scientist and a UAA terrestrial ecologist. Two postdoctoral researchers will be hired and up to 6 graduate and 6 undergraduate students will participate each year. Boreal Fires researchers will submit at least 21 articles for peer review based on F&I research and will meet regularly with agencies, communities, tribes and other stakeholders to enable knowledge co-production and to disseminate outlooks, scenarios, visualizations, and other useful products.

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