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Grant will help map Northwest wildfire threats

Mapping where severe wildfires are likely to occur in the Northwest is the focus of a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant.

The four-year grant will help researchers at the University of Idaho and Washington State University model where fires will burn the hottest and cause the most destruction in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The research also will help communities prepare for the fires’ aftermath, such as heightened risk of flooding or hits to tourism.

“The most severe fires do the most damage, both in the short term and the long term,” said Crystal Kolden, assistant professor in UI’s Department of Geography. “Severe fires hit a community not once, but again and again and again.”

Homes in the path of wildfires are a community’s initial concern, but when fires burn hot enough, they also reduce the soil’s ability to absorb water, Kolden said. After the 2014 Carlton Complex fires burned 400 square miles and destroyed 300 homes, rainstorms led to flooding in the Methow Valley.

In 2013, after wildfires burned hillsides near Boise, mudslides threatened the Anderson Ranch Reservoir near Boise, which provides irrigation water for crops.

Rural economies also experience lingering effects from wildfires when tourists cancel hotel reservations and loggers can’t operate heavy equipment in the woods, Kolden said. Researchers will use information about drought, climate and bug-killed trees to create an early-alert fire warning system for communities. They’ll also work with local communities on mitigation plans.

More than 1 million acres have burned in the Northwest this year, and climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires.