In the Cascadia region of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, 5,802 wildfires were reported in 2018.

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Wildfires are a rising concern. Here in the Cascadia region of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, wildfires are a serious problem, with 5,802 reported in 2018. In the U.S., 31,677 wildfires burned 3.8 million acres during the same period, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And in August, a blaze in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest covered much of Sao Paulo in smoke, marking the 74,155th fire since January, and underscoring the fact that wildfires have become a global issue.

To better understand the challenge and possible solutions, academic experts realized they needed to join forces, and a collaboration was born thanks to a candid phone conversation between several educators in the region. “It really came up as we were starting to brainstorm about the problems that we all face, and that each of our institutions has researchers working on,” says Gail Murphy, Vice President of Research and Innovation and a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia. “[Wildfires] are a problem that have a real regional impact on both sides of the border, but also have global consequences.”

The economic, environmental and health risks associated with wildfires are well documented, but long-term, effective management is still in its infancy. Researchers at schools including the University of British Columbia, the University of Washington and Oregon State University are working together to create an actionable plan. Fostering this kind of cross-border collaboration in research, business and other areas is a goal of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, an initiative launched in 2016, now co-chaired by Challenge Seattle and the Business Council of British Columbia.

Emergency preparedness and prevention

Experts predict wildfire likelihood using weather forecast patterns, wind reports and organic fuel conditions. The process isn’t exact, and academic researchers behind the wildfire project are hoping to improve methods with new technology. “We all know a lot of things about wildfires, but the question is, could we detect the areas that are more susceptible?” says Shwetak N. Patel, a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Washington, and Co-executive Director, Global Innovation Exchange.

There’s an above-average risk for wildfires in the Cascadia region this fall, according to the latest NIFC report, including parts of eastern Washington, the northern Cascades, the Columbia Basin and southwestern Oregon. Patel says the development of machine learning and weather sensors and remote monitoring can help officials anticipate wildfire risk. “The sensors married with the forecasting data could be a great opportunity to make some inroads. This is what machine learning can do — help us predict those areas.”

Environmental effects

The environmental impact of forest burning isn’t all bad. According to the U.S. Forest Service, natural fires support forest ecosystems by renewing plants and soil. That said, large-scale wildfires pollute the air by releasing carbon dioxide — also known as greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. Wildfires can also permanently damage the landscape of an affected area.

Murphy highlights conservation as a primary initiative of the group’s collective efforts. “[The project] cuts across so many different research areas,” she says. “From how we actually ensure that the forests are in shape and have the right kinds of trees to mitigate wildfire, to the health effects that occur as a result of smoke in the air, or the effects around agriculture and bee pollination.”

Health risks

An essential byproduct of environmental conservation is population health. A 2016 report by Harvard and Yale researchers identified more than 300 counties in the western U.S. at increased risk of pollution caused by wildfire smoke. Residents of heavily populated areas, including King County in Washington, are projected to face the highest levels of wildfire smoke exposure in the coming decades. Research revealed that the air particles produced by wildfires are small enough to be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs, causing respiratory and cardiac issues like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Poisonous smoke produced by wildfires can travel hundreds of miles, and Patel says that addressing the issue also means understanding how to care for those affected. “What kinds of impact does it have for people with asthma?” he says. “For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases? For the elderly? For children? We want to look at what are the technologies that could be brought to bear in terms of interventions and things that we could develop to cope with some of these issues.”

As the effects of wildfires become more known, academic researchers agree that funding and attention are necessary to maintain Cascadia’s beauty and safety, and Murphy believes their efforts will gain support in the region. “By taking an issue like wildfire and showing what’s possible when we all work together, we’re building a scaffolding that we can use to replicate for other problems people are interested in trying to address and solve,” she says. “And with that, we’re going to be able to bring more people into the momentum we’re creating together with government and with industry, and we’ll be really able to create the Cascadia of tomorrow.”

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference brings together business, academic, and government leaders from both sides of the border to explore new strategies for the region to come together, maximize our shared competitive advantages and elevate our global economic position.