At the University of California, Cooperative Extension translates scientific research into solutions to applied problems.
As a UC Cooperative Extension Specialist, my focus is on communicating science related to fire ecology and management. My approach has increasingly been to view most wildfire problems through the lens of coupled “human-natural systems” — also called “socio-ecololgical systems” — as there are several links and feedbacks between the two sides. Long-term solutions must thus address multiple aspects of a given wildfire problem, or success will be limited at best. Stakeholders range from homeowners living in fire-prone environments to agency efforts involving hazard mapping and climate change. In turn, my research program is largely driven by knowledge gaps and needs of these varied stakeholders.
Extension activities can often be unique to the problem and stakeholders in question. Some issues are best addressed through working with stakeholders to identify the research questions and/or methods to solve a new problem (e.g., citizen science example below). In contrast, some problems are so complex and pervasive that the most effective approach may be to work directly with high-level decision makers to communicate the latest scientific research about wildfire (e.g., public opinion and policy example below).
Citizen Science: Live Fuel Moisture Monitoring
A common indicator of both drought stress and fire danger is the water content in living plant tissue. This metric is typically assessed 1-2 times per month by fire agencies, but the results are not generally communicated to the public. Furthermore, most of the sampling is done relatively far from the wildland-urban interface (WUI) where people tend to live.
To help educate the public and fill a data gap in the WUI of Santa Barbara, we have started a live fuel moisture sampling program in collaboration with volunteers from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Here is a short article describing how it works. We are also in the process of developing a guide for creating your own program. Coming soon!
Proactively Changing Public Opinion and Policy
Although wildfires are natural and necessary phenomena in many ecosystems, human society generally does not view wildfire as something we must accommodate. In the case of other natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes, and landslides, our communities tend to be built in locations and in ways that reflect the frequency and intensity of such events.
My lab has spent a lot of effort developing models of climate change effects on wildfire patterns, and it is clear that the future is likely be more fire-prone in many locations. This insight requires that we rethink how we deal with wildfire, including where and how we build our communities. Climate change adaptation plans will need to include the inevitability of wildfire and its influence on both infrastructure and ecosystem services. A major shift in public perception is required to appreciate the need for such policy changes, and one effective way to do this is through targeted messages via the media. My interactions with COMPASS, an outstanding science communication NGO, have been central to developing this mode of extension.
For academics interested in having their research influence public opinion and high-level policy, an excellent resource is Nancy Baron’s book, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making your Science Matter. This book has also been recommended by others for Cooperative Extension professionals.
The Fire Information Engine Toolkit
One of the projects of our group has been the development of the Fire Information Engine Toolkit, a set of tools that includes an online homeowner wildfire hazard assessment, forms that decision makers can download to complete a community-wide wildfire assessment, and software and publications for researchers. Our goal is to work with local, state, and Federal agencies to help reduce fire risk, particularly in the wildland-urban interface.
Select Extension Publications
Muller, B. and M.A. Moritz. 2015. Live fuel moisture: Garden volunteers fill a gap in assessing local fire danger. Ironwood 23: 2. PDF
Moritz, M.A. 2012. Climate change and wildfire: How vulnerable are we? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists online Opinion feature (29 August 2012).
Bartolome, J. and M.A. Moritz. 2011. Research on fire and ecosystem services must incorporate climate realities. California Agriculture 65: 176-176. PDF
Moritz, M.A., M.A. Krawchuk, and M.-A. Parisien. 2010. Pyrogeography: understanding the ecological niche of fire. PAGES news 18: 83-85. PDF
Kearns, F.R., N.C. Goldstein, B. Pedersen, and M.A. Moritz. 2007. The fire information engine: a web-based toolkit for wildfire-related needs. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries 4:1. PDF
Waugh, J., S. Stephens, M. Moritz, R. Smith, and R. Myers. 2006. Fire as a global conservation issue: Regional collaboration toward collective action. Forest Ecology and Management 234S S151. PDF
Moritz, M.A. 2005. Rethinking how we live with fire. In:R. Halsey (Ed.), Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California, Sunbelt Publications. PDF
Moritz, M.A. and Odion, D.C. 2004. Prescribed fire and natural disturbance. Science 306: 1680. PDF