San Jose State opens groundbreaking wildfire research center

As Cal Fire crews close in on 50% containment of the CZU complex mega-fire, San Jose State University researchers are making strides to protect against the ravages of wildfires.

On the university's campus Tuesday, space age-looking equipment designed for the age of mega-fires was unveiled. SJSU launched the first-of-its-kind academic Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center.

“For the last decade, we’ve been focusing on fire weather and fire behavior here at San Jose state. But we really need to bring more expertise to the problem,” said center director Dr. Craig Clements.

He oversees a new team of five tenure-track professors, each laser-focused on a different aspect of wildfires. From ecology to fluid dynamics, behavior modeling to remote sensing, and to management and policy studies.

Experts say the frequency of so-called mega-fires, such as the multiple complex fires burning around the Bay Area, will grow during the next decade, fueled in part by global warming.

Firefighters already rely on scientific modeling to guide their efforts. But the new center’s models use fine-scale meteorology to predict where changes will come due to weather and topography.

“Wildfires create their own weather and this is the only model in the world that can actually forecast how that impacts fire behavior,” said Dr. Clements.

MORE: Containment grows on wildfires burning across Bay Area

Cal Fire CZU Information Officer Daniel Potter added that the equipment helps crews to predict how the fire will behave and it also helps people get evacuated before their neighborhood is really impacted.  

Researchers will study why and where people evacuate, the needs they have, and why some--such as some Bonny Doon residents--choose to stay and fight.

“I don’t believe that our homes would still be there,” Bonny Doon resident Hanna O’Brien said on Aug. 24.

WIRC researcher Dr. Amanda Stasiewicz says there is evidence, despite pleas from professionals, that staying to protect your home does have benefits.

“There is research showing that your home is more likely to survive if there is someone on the property to put out spot fires, little ember fires,” she said.

MORE: Bay Area wildfires: Status of evacuation orders and warnings

University officials say some research is being done on the lightning-sparked CZU and SCU fire complexes currently burning. They say their work done at the new center is another tool that will help California and much of the west withstand the growing threat from wildfires.