Fascinated by Fire Science
Research Excellence Award winner Alistair Smith is dedicated to answering questions that help communities that live with wildfire
Scientists still have much to discover about wildfire — and that keeps University of Idaho fire science Associate Professor Alistair Smith fascinated.
Smith is among a group of fire researchers around the world, including several at UI, who want to expand the kind of questions fire science can answer and the solutions it can offer.
“In the last decade or so, there have been more people like myself looking at fire science from a fresh perspective” said Smith, who is part of the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences, leads the Fire Ecology and Management Program and will receive the rank of full professor in fall 2017.
Smith, a native of Scotland who came to UI in 2003, notes that fire science research is particularly urgent in Idaho.
“In this part of the world, wildfires are inevitable. They will occur,” he said. “Let’s get all the information we can to make firefighters’ jobs safer, easier and more effective, and protect the communities that are going to be affected by these fires.”
Driven by discovery, the opportunity to make a difference and the encouragement of his colleagues, Smith has pursued an array of research, from theoretical ideas to projects with on-the-ground applications. He’s also known for his commitment to collaboration, across disciplines at UI, among faculty and students, and with industry and academic partners.
In recognition of this wide-ranging work, the university has selected Smith for the 2017 Excellence in Research or Creativity Activity Award.
“Dr. Smith is a talented researcher and a leader among the University of Idaho’s interdisciplinary fire science team,” said Janet Nelson, vice president for research and economic development. “His creativity and drive are instrumental as the university builds on our excellent foundation and pursues strategic investments in wildfire research that directly benefits Idaho communities.”
Get to Know Some of Smith's Current Research
FireWise programs help homeowners create landscaping that reduces the threat to their homes in the event of wildfire. One of Smith’s current projects digs into the science behind FireWise.
“We live in a fire-prone landscape,” Smith says. “How can you select plants that will give the firefighters more time to save your house?”
In UI’s combustion laboratory, Smith has been testing how quickly different plant varieties burn and how easily they spread flames. He is working in partnership with Idaho FireWise and its national counterpart, which currently make recommendations about planting, but have limited data to support them. Smith’s work makes FireWise more “science-smart,” he said.
Idaho FireWise will establish demonstration gardens at the UI Arboretum and Botanical Garden and the Pitkin Forest Nursery using Smith’s findings, and will share this new knowledge with Idaho’s 12 other demonstration gardens.
“As we learn things in the lab, we’ll let them know which plants to keep,” Smith said.
Just as homeowners can choose fire-friendly plants, forest managers can use science to guide their decisions as they replant forests after wildfires.
Working with Daniel Johnson and Crystal Kolden in the College of Natural Resources, Smith is studying how fire intensity affects tree saplings.
“People have been assuming that when fire affects trees and plants, either it’s dead or it’s unaffected,” he said. “We’re showing it’s more than that.”
The researchers have found that young trees grow differently when they’re exposed to fires of varying intensity. The response varies by species — for example, lodgepole pines can withstand a “minimum dose” of fire, but western larch suffers with any fire exposure at all.
This research can help forest managers choose to plant resilient trees that can withstand periodic fires — which benefits them economically by reducing the cost of replanting.
In addition, managers who use prescribed burns to reduce dry fuels in forests can adjust the burns’ intensities to protect saplings.
“They can keep the fire risk down without killing their crop,” Smith says.
Smith’s third ongoing project sounds more esoteric: postdoctoral researcher Kara Yedinak, mechanical engineering Professor Michael Anderson and Smith are collaborating on a project to measure the noises different tree species make when they’re on fire.
“We all know that when fire burns, we hear snap, crackle and pop,” Smith said. “Can we learn, can we get information, from the snap, crackle and pop?”
Their work so far has found there are in fact distinct differences among species. When trees are stressed from lack of water, the sounds change.
This is foundational research for now, but Smith envisions future firefighters using sound to characterize fires that are obscured by smoke or heavy brush.
“If you can actually get at how the fire’s burning without looking at it, that would really improve firefighter safety,” he said. “It’s adding another level of information to wildfire science.”
Smith’s dedication to research extends beyond his own work. As CNR’s director of research and graduate studies and director of the Idaho Fire Initiative for Research and Education, he helps UI prepare future scientists and natural resource professionals.
One new project brings research outside the traditional university structure: In partnership with Northwest tribes, Salish-Kootenai College and rural Idaho towns, Smith is working to create place-based master’s degree programs that would allow people to stay in their communities while gaining hands-on research experience.
Smith has a list of other research and outreach goals for the coming decade, too — and he knows UI is the right place to make them a reality.
“We have that supportive environment here. There isn’t the stress of ‘You can only do this.’ You can explore what you’re interested in,” he says. “I made the decision many years ago that I would pursue research that interests me, which is really a wide range of things.”
University Awards for Excellence
The University Awards for Excellence will be presented at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, at the International Ballroom in the Bruce M. Pitman Center. View the full list of recipients.
For a biography of Smith, as well as information about past Excellence in Research or Creativity Activity Award recipients, visit the award website.