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Fighting fire with science

Utah researchers working on projects to better monitor, fight and prevent deadly wildfires

Cooler weather has all but extinguished wildfire danger in Utah — but thoughts of next summer aren't far from a few university researchers' minds.

As Utah ends one of its worst-ever wildfire seasons, University of Utah geographers are embarking on various projects to help people protect themselves from flames, allow aircraft to better monitor fires and learn if beetle infestations contribute to wildfires. The projects have garnered more than $700,000 in federal grants for the university.

Most importantly, researchers believe, is the protection of human lives in the case of a nearby wildfire.

Five people lost their lives this summer to wildfires or related causes.

Roy Rex Redmon, 68, and his wife, Mary Ann Redmon, 65, of Rowland Heights, Calif., were killed when their vehicle was knocked off I-15 during commotion caused by the Milford Flat fire in Millard County in early July. Lightning ignited the fire, and high winds spread flames quickly through the area, burning nearly 400,000 acres.

In late June, three men were killed while attempting to save a structure on a farm in eastern Utah.

George Houston, 63, his son Tracy Houston, 43, and farm owner Roger Roberson, 75, died when flames rushed over the hillside, consuming the Farm Creek farm.

The men were the first nonfirefighter deaths in wildfires in Utah since 1997. The Neola fire burned more than 43,000 acres, and its cause remains under investigation, according to the FBI.

Spencer S. Koyle, 33, was killed Aug. 17, 2006, while fighting the Devil's Den fire near Oak City in Millard County. He was among 91 firefighters honored by President Bush Monday at the new National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, which will be dedicated in November in Emmitsburg, Md.

Researchers want to study what could be done differently in such situations to preserve human life during and before a wildfire.

The options for avoiding a large-scale fire are slim, including evacuating or what is called "shelter-in-place," said U. associate professor of geography Tom Cova. He and Frank Drews, assistant professor of psychology, will study the factors that influence how people decide on protective actions during wildfires.

"The focus of this research will be the criteria and decision-making processes that lead one of these options to be preferable in a given scenario," Cova said.

More than 1,300 wildfires charred approximately 620,375 acres in the state during the past six months. Researchers believe that the severity of those outbreaks could have been lessened.

Philip Dennison, an assistant professor of geography at the U., will study a new way of determining wildfire temperatures via aircraft.

"It's important to understand where the fire is, what type of fuels it is burning and how intensely the fire is burning," he said. "The data we will be looking at can tell us all of these things."

Hyperspectral data, which measure wavelengths spanning both visible and infrared radiation, will be studied to determine whether that's a viable way to determine actual heat. Dennison will not only study wildfires, but human-caused fires, as well.

Aircraft is currently used to help extinguish fires and sometimes to make measurements and predict a fire's probable path. The new technique could help put out many fires more quickly.

Another U. study will examine whether beetle infestations make certain areas of forestry more prone to wildfires. With a National Science Foundation grant, Andrea Brunelle, also an assistant professor of geography at the U., will study the relationship between mountain pine beetle infestations and wildfires.

Right now, she said, it is not known if trees killed by the bugs are more susceptible to fires, yet land managers often harvest beetle-infested trees, believing it will not only reduce the risk of fire but also slow further infestations.

"The big take-home from our project will be some useful information on what land managers should do after a beetle outbreak," Brunelle said. The results will be used to determine whether leaving dead trees standing matters. The other option is to "log them out," she says.

As part of her research, Brunelle will analyze pollen, charcoal and beetle remains from the sediment of mid- and high-elevation lakes. Tree-rings will also tell the history of outbreaks, which will give researchers a long-term view of the infestations.

The various grants will be made available to the U. over two- and three-year installments from federal agencies as the professors research their specific projects. The hope is that by studying wildfires, more can be prevented and those that happen can be better understood, Dennison said.