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Meet the Fire Chasers

From a layperson’s perspective, fighting a forest fire is a fairly simple process: just add water. But research in communication practices is improving how wildfires are handled, and two NC State researchers are right on the front lines.

Dr. Branda Nowell, associate professor of public and international affairs, and Dr. Toddi Steelman, professor of environmental and natural resource policy,  are members of the Fire Chasers, a team that’s been researching wildfires since 2008. Their goal is to develop ways to make communities more resilient when it comes to wildfires and other disasters.

“In order for the response to be effective, it generally requires many different organizations and agencies to come together very quickly into a coordinated system for meeting community needs and often under very challenging conditions,” Nowell says.

Why Focus on Wildfires?

“Wildfires are one of the most commonly occurring disasters in the United States,” she says. “Historical fire management practices and increasing development pressures in wild areas have led to an increase in the severity and complexity of wildfires.”

Forest fires, like the one that burned homes in Kernville, Calif., are the most common natural disasters.

And complex disasters require complex research. Nowell’s background in community and organizational psychology makes her an important member of the Fire Chasers team.

“Working in this area often requires tapping into insights from an array of disciplines including psychology, communication, sociology, public management, public policy, system science, and organizational science to understand these settings,” Nowell says. “As scholars, it has been fun and challenging to think about disaster response dynamics from so many different perspectives.”

The Fire Chasers’ research sends them outside the classroom and lab into the thick of unfolding disasters. Their research has taken them from the East Coast to the West as they observe incident management teams in action on multiple fires at sites in California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Valuable Resource

Through their fieldwork, observations, and research, the Fire Chasers team has become a valuable resource for local communities and federal incident response teams.

At the end of the data collection, the researchers provide reports and presentations to each field site and incident management team about what they learned. They also place their findings in academic publications in order to quickly get research findings out to those who might be able to use them.

“We have ongoing conversations with the officials involved who let us know the next set of questions where they would appreciate our input,” Nowell says. “We anticipate many of the lessons from the project will be useful to others who deal with large-scale disasters.”