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Originally published Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Researchers from 2 universities to study wildfires

Researchers at the University of Idaho and Washington State University plan to use a $1.2 million grant from NASA to study how extreme wildfires affect people and the environment, and how to make communities safer.

The Associated Press

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LEWISTON, Idaho —

Researchers at the University of Idaho and Washington State University plan to use a $1.2 million grant from NASA to study how extreme wildfires affect people and the environment, and how to make communities safer.

"The Forest Service spends more than half of its total budget fighting fires, and a lot of the reason for that expenditure is the risk to human communities," said Matt Carroll, a professor in the WSU Department of Natural Resource Sciences. "If we can make these communities more fire adapted, not only would it help the communities it would save huge amounts of money."

He said fighting large fires is becoming more difficult as people continue moving into forested areas.

Alistair Smith, a forestry professor at the UI College of Natural Resources and leader of the research project, said about 20 researchers will take part in the project.

"It's going to be very good for both the University of Idaho and Washington State University," he told the Lewiston Tribune.

Researchers said the trend of large-scale fires in the western United States is likely to continue as the climate warms and people move into forested areas. Researchers plan to examine how those large fires change vegetation, water quality and wildlife habitat. They will also examine how communities respond to fires, partly by looking at past fires.

"Can we start getting better educated guesses 100 and 50 years out, both socially and in terms of the vegetation, what is going to happen," said Smith.

He said he wants to find out if the environmental and societal effects of fires match up. He said it's possible it may take the environment decades to recover from a severe fire, while people might look at an area as recovered much sooner.

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com

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