CI Earns NSF Grant to Study Wildfire Effects

CI Earns NSF Grant to Study Wildfire Effects

11 December 2013

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USA — A new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help CSU Channel Islands (CI) students study the effects of wildfire on the area’s ecosystem. The grant funds a collaborative research partnership between CI, UC Santa Barbara and University of Colorado Denver to systematically examine the impacts of wildfire on chaparral and watersheds.

Linda O’Hirok, a lecturer in CI’s Environmental Science & Resource Management program, is leading six students in the project this semester. A main focus of their investigation is Big Sycamore Canyon, which burned during the May 2013 Springs Fire that scorched 24,000 acres and threatened the CI campus. They’re comparing the resilience of the recently-burned landscape with three similar sites in the region: a tributary of Matilija Creek that burned during the July 1985 Wheeler Fire, a tributary of Malibu Creek that burned in 1993, and an unburned tributary in Wildwood Canyon.

“The growing danger of wildfires has increased our need to understand the way watersheds respond,” said O’Hirok. “By studying and measuring the post-fire runoff and erosion at four different sites in four different stages of recovery, we can piece together a compelling story of the short- and long-term effects of wildfire in chaparral environments. This could help us better predict dangers from erosion and flooding after wildfire and guide emergency planning.”

The research is funded with the help of an NSF RAPID grant, which supports scientific projects that require quick response after natural disasters or similar unanticipated events. The opportunity to study the effects of the May Springs Fire as the rainy season began prompted O’Hirok and her co-investigators on the grant, UCSB geologist (and lead investigator) Joan Florsheim and Professor Anne Chin from University of Colorado Denver, to apply for immediate funding. Each of the three wildfire-prone campuses is studying different aspects of post-fire processes. CI also secured permits from the California State Parks system allowing their ongoing work.

“With our campus bordering the Santa Monica Mountains and the site of the Springs Fire, we have the perfect living laboratory right in our backyard,” O’Hirok said. “This gives CI undergraduates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved in the early stages of an ecological investigation that’s evolving right in front of them.”

O’Hirok and the six students are already busy surveying streams, measuring sediment released by wildfires, monitoring changes in channel flows, and documenting the impact on surrounding vegetation and habitats. They began their work in September, taking detailed measurements of the areas’ topography and vegetation and setting up motion sensor cameras to clock the movement of debris. After each rain, O’Hirok and the students return to catalog changes brought by the precipitation.

A few of the students have surprised themselves with their own dedication to the project. They often spend their weekends hunting data and are ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice after any new rain event. A few suffered poison oak in pursuit of their research.

“I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity as an undergraduate student,” said Dylan Ellis, a senior Environmental Science & Resource Management major. “Though it was not ideal to have a fire in May – as it suggests the ever-increasing effects of climate change and higher temperatures – I find it very rewarding to have the opportunity to help further the knowledge of post-fire erosional processes.”

“I feel lucky that such a significant project presented itself,” said Alex Gaskill, a senior ESRM major. “Wildfires are happening all the time, but having one of this magnitude hit so close to home is really powerful. In many of our previous classes, we had been going into the mountains around our campus, collecting data and making observations. So, after the fire, the first thing we thought of was what data we could collect and analyze from the incident.”

Some of the UCSB group’s initial findings were presented at the 2013 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Denver. But with the rainy season just getting underway, the bulk of CI’s research is likely to take place in the next few weeks. At the end of the semester, students will present their findings on different aspects of the study in senior Capstone projects, while also contributing to the larger body of research. O’Hirok hopes it will be an ongoing project and is working with her co-investigators on the grant to seek future funding.

“This research addresses a critical gap in knowledge about the magnitude and importance of sediment processes in chaparral environments to wildfire,” O’Hirok said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for CI and its students to advance knowledge of post-fire sediment dynamics while participating in valuable, cutting-edge research.”

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