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Professor Receives $250,000 Grant to Study Brushfires

Published: October 1, 2014

CSULB Geography Professor and Chair Paul Laris’ experience with burning brush recently in the Northwest African country Mali earned him a $250,000 grant running through February 2016 from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant supports Laris’ research into “Coupling Burning Practices, Vegetation Cover Change and Fire Regimes to Determine Fire-Emission Dynamics.”

“I’m pleased to receive this grant because one of the things the NSF is interested in are fire emissions as they relate to climate change and global warming,” Laris said. “My first interest was in the human side of the burning practices that cover the Mali savannah every year. Now, I am trying to understand natural systems and the impact on those systems by humans.”

The goal of Laris’ study is the emission levels of smoke and gas emissions from the southern Mali fires.

“The big issue is the savannah,” he said. “The African savannah is so large that even small errors about the levels of emissions can balloon into really large numbers. In southern Mali about 50 percent of the savannah landscape burns every year and current estimates of emissions may be off by as much as 40 percent.”

Laris studies there because he has more than 10 years’ experience in Mali, where he has established contacts with experts in fire and forestry research. His current team includes a geographer from Ivory Coast, a geographer fire ecologist from Mali, CSULB department of geography’s GIS expert Suzanne Wechsler and graduate students from Iran and South Korea.

Survey techniques range from face-to-face interviews with the farmers to satellite image analysis.

“Our basic research has two components,” he explained. “One is when we go out in the field and set test fires. We hold a long tube right in the flames to pull out emissions and get readings for carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. We are measuring emissions right on the spot which I don’t think anyone else is doing.

“There are early, middle and late periods in the Mali fire season,” he added. “The early fires begin in November, the middle fires are in January and the late fires arrive in February. We set around two dozen test fires and collect the data. Each fire period burns a different vegetation and we hoping to determine exactly what burns when. Plus, we hope to bring to campus in January some of our Mali colleagues to conduct a workshop where they can present their data and its analysis.”

Laris’ research analyzes how fires spread and how they can be managed, with data showing how the fire affects a particular area at particular times of year.

“We discuss what is good about the fires and what is bad about their management,” he said. “We are hoping for new ideas about experimental firefighting techniques. But the most relevant part of our research, as far as it relates outside of Mali, is trying to understand the amount of emissions. Africa is the continent that burns the most. It is the biggest contributor. It is interesting to compare outcomes between California and Mali.”

An early finding of Laris’ research was mildly shocking to his Mali colleagues.

“I don’t see the Mali burning as entirely negative,” he said. “It is only recently that a more positive view has been taken. Some burning is good and some is bad. Everyone worries about the changing global weather but I am not convinced that the fires in the West African savannah are effected that much, since fires are a largely a human driven phenomenon.”

Laris feels one reason the NSF recognized his research is the length and level of his experience, along with 10 years of working with an integrated team of Africans and Americans. For instance, one study performed on Ivory Coast produced figures that are still used in calculations 20 years later. Also, his research has drawn support from several sources including the National Geographic Society.

“What was nice about the National Geographic grant was the seed money it provided to start my research,” he said. “They gave me a camera which I took out into the field. I got up close and personal with fire. I grew up near fire in Southern California and my mother’s house burned in a Santa Barbara fire. I feel I have a close relationship with fire.”

He said feedback has been positive, and that the people of southern Mali definitely want to understand fire better.

“They are growing different crops and they know they must farm differently. They recognize Mali is a place of serious droughts,” he said. “They understand there is something called climate change. I think the people of Mali understand that what we’re trying to do is to see the bigger picture. They’re willing to help. But their main interest is how our research will help Mali.”