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How UCSB researchers' computer models help provide a better understanding of wildfire activity

City of SB CWPP
Map in Santa Barbara Community Wildfire Protection Plan


California's 2020 wildfire season burned more than four million acres and broke numerous records for increased size and intensity, according to a recent report from the state’s Forest Management Task Force.

Understanding these changes in wildfire activity is what UCSB Professor Naomi Tague studies in her lab.

“I develop mathematical computer simulation models that take remote sensing data, take what we learn from field scientists and put it all together, so we can start to get a handle on how climate change affects the environment,” Tague said.

Tague looks at how climate, water, vegetation and wildfire interact over time.

“We are seeing larger, more high severity fires in the Western U.S. and some of the reasons for that is increasing drought, warmer temperatures that are caused by climate change, and in some places fire suppression has contributed to that,” Tague said.

In the city of Santa Barbara, where foothills and strong winds are a factor, Wildland Fire Specialist Amber Anderson says they use computer models for risk assessment and planning. Santa Barbara recently updated their Community Wildfire Fire Protection Plan.

“We took topography, we took vegetation, and we took weather to complete a model that gave us an indicator of various flame lengths we could expect in the city,” Anderson said. "We looked at landscaping, defensible space, what we can do for education, what we can do for evacuation."

Professor Tague says computer models do have some limitations since factors like wind direction and precipitation levels are always changing. But, for the most part, she says the models work well to provide a picture of what’s happening in regard to climate change and wildfire behavior.

“This use of technology and computer simulation to integrate different pieces of data, we’re constantly trying to make it better,” said Tague.

To find out more about the wildfire protection plans in your area of the Central Coast, visit your city or county website.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.
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