As the West burns, environmental historian Bill Deverell said one need only to look to the practices of indigenous tribes as one way to help curtail the scope of wildfires and their potential catastrophic outcomes.

“Trails on indigenous or other properties — trails act as natural fire breaks in really interesting ways. Indigenous societies have known that for thousands of years,” said Deverell, a professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

He also pointed to the need for strategic, controlled burns on private land, sovereign, tribal land or state and other public lands.

“Fire doesn’t really care who owns the land,” he noted.

Coming together

In addition to his role as a professor, Deverell directs the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, or ICW, which recently launched a three-year initiative, The West on Fire. It brings together a diversity of experts that include ecologists, indigenous fire practitioners, the U.S. Forest Service, earth scientists, economists, political scientists, archivists and more.

“You know, a lot of the solutions of firefighting in the American West is can we get various agencies at the local, state and federal levels to share data, share information and communicate? And I think there’s a real reason to think that’s happening now in a much more exciting, important way.”

But the tragic outcomes of raging and relentless wildfires are an all too frequent occurrence.

Deverell pointed to the devastation of the northern California wildfire in 2018 that razed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people ,or the August fires on the island of Maui in Hawaii that have killed 115 people so far, with more than a thousand people who remain missing.

“And isn’t that ironic, you know that we’d look at a place like Maui which is seen by so many people as a small ‘p’ paradise. And then there’s literally the capital ‘P’ Paradise in California, and these are two places that have been just eviscerated by wildfires (that) killed so many people. And if that’s not a wake up call, that fire can come to Paradise, you know, either Hawaiian paradise or Paradise, California, I don’t know what is.”

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Old ways and new technology

Aside from trails, creating other earthen fire breaks, old-fashioned fire lookouts and removal of understory, Deverell said the technological tools to prevent catastrophic wildfires are vast: satellite imagery, the use of cartography or mapping, data visualization, advances in arial suppression and of course, the latest: artificial intelligence.

Cal Fire already uses AI to root out locations of possible wildfires, and according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, California is the first place in the world to do so using an alert system that in just a couple months identified 77 fires even before any 911 calls were placed.

Recognizing the importance of prescribed burns, the University of Southern California is also entrenched in a project funded through the National Science Foundation using AI as a metric for identifying the best locations and least risk for landscape-scale controlled burns.

Bistra Dilkina said AI, through this pilot project, can factor the myriad considerations that must be part of decision making for prescribed burns, especially in light of constrained resources.

“Prescribed burns are very important, but they’re also difficult to plan. And in the past, there’s been limited usage of prescribed burns. But in the next few decades it is expected prescribed burns are to be a common mitigation strategy,” said Dilkina, an associate professor of computer science and of industrial and systems engineering.

“So there’s investment and interest from the wildfire community to understand how to do prescribed burns more effectively.”

Dilkina, who is co-director of the university’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, said the project aims to do just that — help configure the decision for land managers on the most ideal and effective locations.

“So you have limited resources and you can only do X number of prescribed burns in a year. You have multiple locations where you can do them. There’s multiple locations where there is a build up of fuel and so where should you do let’s say the five prescribed burns that you can afford to do? Right, so it’s a resource allocation problem,” she said.

That narrow window of choices adds to the complexity of the problem because of other considerations that need to be taken into account.

Those considerations include:

  • Proximity to structures.
  • Landscapes in which endangered or threatened species would be impacted.
  • Air quality.
  • Potential for fire impairing water quality.

Outcomes at odds

Those considerations can naturally be at odds with one another. An ideal location for a prescribed burn that does not jeopardize structures may inevitably harm already impaired wildlife. Or a burn that diminishes air quality concerns for public health may jeopardize water quality.

The AI tool is pulling in those factors and formulating scenarios based on tradeoffs via an engineering approach called the Pareto Front — examining “nondominated solutions” that are selected because no objective can be improved without sacrificing another.

Dilkina said there may be a prescribed burn that decreases the risk of a wildfire, but the burn may be too close to structures. The Pareto Front is the array of alternative solutions that details the tradeoffs, allowing the decision maker on prescribed burns to ultimately make the call.

Wildfire mitigation and alarm bells

The AI demonstration project is working in conjunction with wildfire managers and other employees at Yosemite National Park, which has had its own series of fires in recent years that include the 2022 arson-caused blaze which burned 100 homes outside its boundaries.

This year, the Pika Fire at Yosemite was allowed to burn, and while it caused air quality impacts, the National Park Service said the lightning-caused blaze was being treated as a way to clear overgrown landscapes.

Crews used a control and confine strategy on the blaze as a way for nature to do its own housekeeping.

Deverell agreed that fire is like deep cleaning an ecosystem under the right circumstances and has always been a part of nature.

“Fire is just such an omnipresent issue. It always has been with us, but it is I think increasingly so in places that don’t think they’re vulnerable to Western wildlands fire — either by the fire itself or the smoke,” he said. “So we want people to talk about it more and think about ways in which we can mitigate the dangers.”

When asked if Lahaina should be a wakeup call on the unfathomable tragedy delivered by wildfires more frequent and intense, Deverell said that alarm went off decades ago.

“I think we’ve had the wakeup calls. I’m just not sure everyone’s woken up to them,” he said. “With climate change, climate swings, drought, there’s the wakeup call. The alarm is ringing.”