Montana State-led project receives $20 million for prescribed fire research

Monday May. 15th, 2023

— With a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Montana State University and its partners on a new project will seek to understand the behavior and social impact of prescribed fires by developing new technologies for real-time monitoring and advancing collaborative relationships between researchers and educators across the state.

The five-year effort, funded by NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, will use MSU’s expertise in optics and computer science to create sensors that can map the burnable fuels in forests and monitor fire behavior and smoke, according to MSU’s Rob Walker, who is leading the project.

“A primary goal of this project is to develop a firm and predictive understanding of prescribed fire behavior so that fire managers will know where to burn, when to burn and how to reduce impacts of smoke on Montana communities,” said Walker, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.

Called SMART FireS, an acronym for Sensors, Machine learning, and Artificial intelligence in Real Time Fire Science, the project includes 32 researchers and other partners at MSU, the. University of Montana, Montana Technological University, Flathead Valley Community College, Salish Kootenai Community College and Little Big Horn College.

"An important element to remember is that SMART FireS is a statewide effort," Walker said. The project will involve close collaboration across the six institutions among researchers working in optical sensors, computer science, fire behavior and social science. It will include educational opportunities for communities, and the SMART FireS team will work with county, state and federal partners to ensure discoveries are translated into better informed practices and policies.

Prescribed burning — which involves intentionally igniting and controlling low-intensity fire to reduce both accumulated fuels in the forest understory and the risk of more severe wildfire — is increasingly viewed as an important management strategy, even as it’s hampered by technical and social challenges, Walker noted.

“Fire managers struggle to know, one, how the intensity and emissions of prescribed fires depend on properties such as the fuels, topography and other environmental conditions,” Walker said, “and, two, how the smoke will affect communities both physically and in terms of their perception of prescribed burning.”

That presents an opportunity for MSU to contribute its growing expertise in optical sensors, according to Joseph Shaw, director of MSU’s Optical Technology Center, or OpTeC. Using hyperspectral imaging to measure both visible and invisible wavelengths of light, researchers will be able to map fire fuels and monitor fire behavior. Other advanced optical methods such as lidar — which involves measuring reflections of harmless laser light — will let researchers monitor the composition of smoke in real-time to provide valuable information to fire managers.

“We have some really advanced technology that’s world-class, with potential for sensors that are more affordable and more portable than anything else out there,” said Shaw, who is leading the optical sensor portion of the research and will work with Kevin Repasky, another professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

Developing the smoke monitors will involve collaboration with fire and smoke scientists at UM and Montana Tech as well as Walker, whose work focuses on developing spectroscopic techniques that can analyze the composition of smoke — for instance, the prevalence of molecules and particulates that can be most harmful to human health.

The project calls for fuel- and fire-mapping sensors to be mounted to drones, with smoke monitors be positioned around a burn area. Those sensors will generate a tremendous amount of data, and the need to process that information in real-time will require developing small, embedded computers to operate the sensors, Shaw noted. Ross Snider, associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department, will spearhead that effort.

Processing the sensor data will also draw from the latest advances in machine learning, which uses sophisticated algorithms and statistical models to dynamically adapt to patterns in data. John Sheppard, professor in MSU’s Gianforte School of Computing, will lead that part of the project, and Brad Whitaker, assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department, will contribute his expertise on computer processing. To support the project, both MSU and UM will be hiring two new computer science faculty. The project in turn will provide support for the research these new faculty will conduct.

“What’s exciting about this project is that it’s an opportunity to make these algorithms really transparent and accessible so that we can work with fire managers to continue to adapt the algorithms to make them as accurate and as useful as possible,” said Sheppard, who has nearly 40 years of experience in the field.

Another goal is to engage with communities to learn about how the public perceives and reacts to prescribed burns, Walker noted. Kristen Intemann, professor in MSU’s Department of History and Philosophy and founding director of MSU’s Center for Science, Technology, and Ethics in Society, is part of that effort, which is being led by Elizabeth Metcalf, the Joel Meier Distinguished Professor of Wildland Management at UM.

NSF’s EPSCoR program emphasizes impacts beyond the technical research of the five-year project, according to Suzi Taylor, director of MSU’s Science Math Resource Center. She will work with colleagues at spectrUM Discovery Area to lead community engagement efforts, including working with teachers to develop lesson plans for K-12 students, developing exhibits and other educational resources, and promoting opportunities for careers in science and engineering. Susan Kelly, director of MSU’s Empower Program, will also contribute to those efforts.

“This is an opportunity to share the story about prescribed burning, why it happens and what goes into the decision making,” Taylor said. “Ultimately this project is about growing capacity across the state through partnerships that can live long beyond the five years of the project itself.”

Those kinds of relationships have been formed by a similar statewide project focused on water quality that was funded with a $20 million EPSCoR grant in 2018, said Walker, who is a co-leader of that effort.

“The experience of working with colleagues across the state has been incredibly rewarding.  Thanks to the current EPSCoR grant, we are much better informed about how economic activities impact water quality in Montana’s rivers and streams,” he said.

“NSF EPSCoR has invested in Montana’s research and education capacity going back to 1980, hiring new faculty, funding priority research, and creating new workforce development opportunities,” said MSU’s Todd Kipfer, the project’s associate director.

Walker said the SMART FireS will leverage cooperative relationships to learn a wildfire management strategy that benefits all Montanans.

“This kind of inter-institutional collaboration makes the whole university system in the state that much stronger,” he said.