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Sept. 18, 2007 – As Utah ends one of its worst wildfire seasons, University of Utah geographers are embarking on research to help people protect themselves from flames, allow aircraft to better monitor fires and learn if beetle infestations contribute to wildfires.

The research is made possible by more than $700,000 in grants from federal agencies.

Tom Cova, an associate professor of geography, and Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology, were awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant of $288,000 to study factors that influence how people decide on protective actions during wildfires.

“Common protective actions include evacuation or shelter-in-place,” says Cova, director of the university’s Center for Natural and Technological Hazards. “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.”

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency recently awarded a two-year, $300,000 grant to Philip Dennison, an assistant professor of geography, to study a new way of determining wildfire temperatures from aircraft.

“It’s important to understand where the fire is, what type of fuels it is burning and how intensely the fire is burning,” Dennison says. “The data we will be looking at can tell us all of these things.”

Dennison will investigate measuring fire temperature using “hyperspectral” data, which measure wavelengths spanning both visible and infrared radiation.  He will look at wildfires and at large-scale, human-caused fires, such as those following the World Trade Center collapse after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Andrea Brunelle, also a University of Utah assistant professor of geography, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, won a two-year National Science Foundation grant for $234,618 to study the relationship between mountain pine beetle infestations and wildfires. Of the total, $123,408 will come to the University of Utah.

Right now, it is not known if trees killed by beetle infestations are more prone to fire, yet land managers often harvest beetle-infested trees, believing that will both reduce the risk of fire and slow beetle infestation.

“The big take home from our project will be some useful information on what land managers should do after a beetle outbreak,” Brunelle says. “Do fires come through? If so, it might make sense to log to reduce the fire hazard in some areas. If there is not a relationship beetles and fire, leaving the dead trees standing would be another option.”

Brunelle will analyze pollen, charcoal and beetle remains from the sediment of mid- and high-elevation lakes, and the history of outbreaks from tree-rings to better understand how climate, vegetation composition, wildfire and beetles interact over long time periods.