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Wildfire Experts

The University of California, Riverside Wildfire Experts

Faculty Bring a Variety of Expertise to Wildfire Stories

(October 26, 2006)

Large wildfires tend to make their own weather, making the flames all the more unpredictable.

Large wildfires tend to make their own weather, making the flames all the more unpredictable.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — — University of California, Riverside faculty experts can add depth to journalists’ stories about this fall’s wildfires as Santa Ana winds whip Southern California and fire burns northwest of Palm Springs, killing several firefighters. Dry vegetation, high winds, low humidity and the effects of an ongoing bark beetle infestation in the San Bernardino Mountains have the makings for another fiery fall.

Richard Minnich,
professor of geography, Department of Earth Sciences.
His specialty is fire ecology. He says the winds, the drought, the heat and the bark beetles have combined to create an unprecedented fire danger. Minnich can compare and contrast how fire suppression policy in Southern California and Baja California differ and how those differences affect the fire-health of wildlands in the two regions. Traditional fire suppression policy to put out the small fires that might clear away brush contribute to making the big fires, when they come along, worse than they might have otherwise been.

"The danger of a half dead forest is absolutely phenomenal," he said of the conditions in the San Bernardino Mountains. For years he has warned that the San Bernardino Mountains have become a tinderbox, which touched off an inferno in the fall of 2003 that proved disasterous.

Office phone: (951) 827-5515

Shankar Mahalingam,
professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Dr. Mahalingam's research focuses on the fluid dynamics of combustion, wildland fire modeling, and the chemical changes plants and other materials undergo during fires. He has written extensively about the behavior of fire as it burns Southern California’s chaparral vegetation. His wildland fire modeling is funded through the U.S. Forest Service and is conducted at the Forest Fire Laboratory in Riverside.

Office phone: (951) 827-2134

Timothy Paine,
professor of entomology, Department of Entomology.
Dr. Paine has studied the Western Bark Beetle and other pests that target trees. “The drought conditions that exist in the mountains mean that the trees have been stressed and are highly susceptible to bark beetles.” It also means that the bark beetles themselves ran out of other sources of water and so targeted the trees. Bark Beetles, about the size of a grain of rice, lay their eggs inside trees and that eventually kills them. The dominant tree species in the San Bernardino Mountains is pine, and that is the prime target of the bark beetles.

Office phone: (951) 827-5835

Tom Scott,
adjunct assistant professor in the department of Earth Science.
Professor Scott studies wildlife conservation and can speak to the effect wildfires have on animal habitat, and on the land that sits between the suburban developments of the cities and the tourist towns of the highlands.

“We have 1,900 kilometers of houses that back up to wild lands in Riverside County alone,” he said. “How could we not have problems with that kind of juxtaposition of people and brush fire territory? Along that margin, anything can happen. This area fell between the cracks for decades.”

Scott serves on the committee reviewing Riverside County’s Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

Office phone: (951) 827-5115

Roger Atkinson,
director of the Air Pollution Research Center.
He specializes in the chemistry of organic compounds in the air. He said the smoke-filled skies downwind from wildfires pose a temporary health hazard. “The sensible thing to do during large fire events is to stay inside, air condition and filter your air, and limit exposure to the smoke coming from the fires,” he said. The Air Pollution Research Center (APRC) was established by the Regents of the University of California in 1961 to conduct basic and applied research into photochemical air pollution.

Office phone: (951) 827-4191

Peter Sadler,
professor of geology, Department of Earth Sciences.
He gives presentations to explain the role of computer modeling in fire science. He has written graphical programs that model the long-term development of vegetation in response to wild fire, and allow scientists to study the role of nitrogen deposition on the Southern California landscape. His programs enable researchers to examine the long-term effects of changing the balance of wind, humidity, topography, vegetation age, and fire suppression efforts. However, the program does not model the short-term effects in a way that can guide firefighters at a particular fire. He cannot comment on an active fire, its suppression, or its ecological impact.

Office phone: (951) 827-5616

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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