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Cal Poly researchers ready to tackle California’s catastrophic fires with new institute

Posted at 5:59 PM, Mar 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-11 22:32:55-04

In the last several years, California has endured some of the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history.

Longtime firefighters say the blazes are getting larger, hotter, and more lethal.

Deadly and devastating fires like the Camp, Thomas, Whittier, and Tubbs fires come with another name: wildland urban interface fires.

It’s a term used to describe forest fires that spread to homes and communities.

Cal Poly professors and students from a variety of fields want to create a research institute to study these fires and make California more resilient to them.

“The worst fires that we have in our history are happening right now,” said Dan Turner, former CAL FIRE SLO Chief and Cal Poly F.I.R.E Institute Executive Director. “That’s not right.”

Over the last few years, catastrophic wildfires have become more common.

Eighty-five lives and nearly 19,000 structures were lost in the Camp Fire.

Twenty-two lives and nearly 6,000 structures were lost in the Tubbs Fire.

Two lives and almost 2,000 buildings were lost in the Woolsey Fire.

“Fires are behaving now like we’ve never seen before,” Turner said. “Very seasoned firefighters are stunned by what they are observing.”

It’s a growing problem many say cannot be solved by firefighters alone.

Enter the Cal Poly W.U.I. F.I.R.E Institute.It stands for the Wildland Urban Interface Fire Information Research and Education Institute.

Turner is working with Cal Poly staff like forest management professor Chris Dicus to create a collaborative space for research, training, and outreach.

“It’s an effort to figure out a new pathway forward,” Turner said. “Engaging a whole lot of expertise across different faculty at this campus as well as other campuses and institutions and see if we can’t find a few new solutions out there.”

“Cal Poly faculty have been collaborating for years and years on different elements of fire safety sort of piecemeal so and this is kind of a conservative collective effort where I think will really make the difference,” Dicus said.

The idea is to bring students, professors and outside stakeholders together to problem-solve like never before.

“Besides natural resources management we have fire protection engineering, we have city regional planning, architecture, economics,” said Dicus. “All of these disciplines that have been working independently now have the potential to work together. ”

“Putting a biomedical researcher and a firefighter type together comes up with something like ‘who would have thought that,’” said Turner.

They’ve already come up with a fire-retardant time capsule and ways to simulate things like fire tornadoes that can happen with WUI fires.

Researchers are confident new technology can help tame the kinds of fires we are seeing today.

Cal Poly forestry students studying the nature of WUI fires that start in forests but spread to communities. (Courtesy Chris Dicus)


One Cal Poly undergraduate hopes to contribute his knowledge of forestry as a former U.S. Forestry Service Hot Shot.

“I hit a point in my career where I was seeing the problem we were having with fires growing larger, burning more and it made me really want to understand more aspects of fire,” said Reuben Brand, Cal Poly forest management undergraduate.

He says the time is now to find better ways to combat and prevent these fires and the WUI FIRE Institute could make that happen.

Brand is already brainstorming with geologists and learning new things.

“We can do things like take aerial images and actually look at the vegetation and you can tell the health of the vegetation,” said Brand. “Before you walk out there and actually see that trees are dying you could actually see it from an aerial image.”

The research team plans to attack this problem from all sides, observing natural and man-made conditions.

“You have to start at the house, the construction of it, the landscaping around the house, the wild lands around the local communities,” said Dicus. “All of these things have to come together and be tied together if we really want to effectively and significantly reduce the losses we have been seeing.”

They say if we aren’t smarter about building cities and reducing forest fuel loads, history can and will repeat itself.

“There have been too many losses and too much impact in California,” said Turner. “We actually owe it to California.”

The founders of the WUI FIRE Institute are ready to put great minds together, they just need funding.

They say it would take about $1 million per year to fund salaries, lab equipment and administrative services.

They are talking to government agencies and community leaders about potential grants and hope to start working in the fall of 2019.

The creators of the institute believe this research facility is one of a kind.

They hope to be the first program in the country to bring together different disciplines to address fires in California.