The Desert Research Institute recently unveiled its new Wildland Fire Science Center, a concept that brings together scientists from various disciplines to combat wildfires. As wildfire season approaches, Reno Public Radio's Noah Glick chatted with the center's new director, Hans Moosmüller.
NG: This is not a physical, research center. So what is this?
HM: "It’s more of a concept. It’s all about getting people together from different divisions at DRI working together. There are people in hydrology, there are a lot of people in ecology and there are a lot of us that are interested in atmospheric emissions and how they affect public health and climate change. So the center is an effort to bring these people together and to develop interdisciplinary projects."
So the idea is that this is an online center or how does it work?
We talk on the phone, we send emails and we will be doing joint experiments, field work and laboratory work together. Fire is an inherently interdisciplinary process. First, you need to understand the fuels and the situation and the ecosystem. Then you need to understand the process: how fire burns and progresses. And you need to understand the emissions and how these wild lands have changed after fire. What has happened to the ecology the hydrology?
"In the face of climate change, a lot of the effects of fire are irreversible, so fires really can make large changes in the landscape and the ecology—and we need to understand these things if we want to manage them in any sensible way."
What are some of the ways that communities can prepare for or prevent fires?
"Fire prevention is a really funny topic, because when the Forest Service was first started under Roosevelt, the mantra was having every fire out the next day by 10 a.m. And that led to total fire suppression, but we’re producing fuels, bushes are growing, and if we don’t burn the fuel accumulates. So what we have in the western U.S. right now is a result of 150 years of fire suppression. We have a lot of fuel on the ground and it will burn, either in a prescribed burn where we have some kind of control or a wildfire where we don’t have any control.
"So these days, the land management agencies have realized that they cannot totally suppress fire. Fire is needed to manage the forest, so we will have to learn how to live with fire. And one of the complications is the spread of the urban wildland interface; everybody likes to live next to the forest. If you look for example in Monroe, the growth in the Galena area is incredible. People have very beautiful homes but they also have a fairly high fire risk. We all pay to keep these homes safe."
Funding for fire research is a major challenge. How has that changed over time?
"In 1995, the Forest Service spent about 15 percent of the budget on firefighting. Last year and the year before it was 50 percent. So that’s a growth of firefighting expenses that cannot be maintained. We don’t have enough money anymore to work on science, how to figure out to better manage fire. Or on practical management, meaning fuel reduction and prescribed burns. We spend all our money reflexively fighting fires. And this means the situation will get worse."
So do you imagine this center will bring more people together to work on this problem?
"Yes, I’m very certain about that. Once the center gets started and we acquire more funding, we will need to hire more people to get the work done."