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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Last updated: 9:43am

Grant will fund study of climate, fire danger



A $1.5 million grant will allow UA researchers to study how human behavior and climate impact wildfires, given the historic fire season that affected some UA students this summer.

Thomas Swetnam, director of the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, is the lead investigator on the National Science Foundation grant, and will spearhead the group of researchers from many different departments, including fire ecology, archaeology, anthropology, education and outreach. The team’s overall goal is to determine how humans affect the severity of wildfires in the Southwest. This question will be answered by combining various means of research, including communicating with four Native American tribes throughout Arizona and New Mexico, and also by researching how the wildfires are fueled by forest components. Swetnam was unable to be contacted for comment as of press time.

T.J. Ferguson, a professor in the School of Anthropology and the grant’s co-principal investigator, will examine the cultural use of fire in several tribes in Arizona and New Mexico.

“I’ve been working with three of the four tribes for more than twenty years on a whole series of projects,” Ferguson said. “So it was a real honor for me to be invited to work with this team of scientists who are studying a topic so timely.”

Ferguson is currently in New Mexico meeting with members of the Pueblo of Zuni and Pueblo of Jemez Native American tribes, where he is trying to better understand how they have affected the behaviors of wildfires in the region, coupled with droughts and other dry conditions. Much of Ferguson’s portion of the project will include mapping the settlement locations of the tribes and comparing them to maps of fires, and then studying the consistencies.

Sara Chavarria, the outreach director in the College of Education, is responsible for making the team’s research accessible to students in high school classrooms.

“Sometimes research can be very high-tech or high-level,” Chavarria said. “While it might make sense to them, it might not translate easily into the classrooms.”

Chavarria will meet with her team in New Mexico during the weekend of Oct. 9 to discuss the outreach segment of the project.

UA students who have experienced wildfires first-hand agree that studying the correlation between humans and wildfires is worth the cost.

Kaitlin Mitchell, a junior from Sierra Vista studying political science and philosophy, had to evacuate her family’s home after a spark during the Monument Fire lit a field near her house.

“I definitely think that this is a great way to spend this money,” Mitchell said. “Arizona is very prone to these wildfires, and it’s likely that there will be more.”

Mitchell also said that research like this could help develop ways to prevent fires and protect property throughout the state.

Natascha Bobke, a German studies senior, said she is also in favor of the research after having to evacuate her grandparents who live in Sierra Vista.

“The fires here just cause one problem and lead to another,” Bobke said.

Bobke also said she thinks the research could help preserve the wildlife of the Southwest. “I think it’s definitely something worth studying,” she said. “Especially after hearing rumors that the fire (Monument Fire) was started by humans.”

The Wallow Fire was the largest in the state’s history, burning more than 539,000 acres. After starting on May 29, it was declared 100 percent contained on July 8.

The Monument Fire also burned more than 30,000 acres surrounding Sierra Vista earlier this summer.


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