PhD in Environmental Sciences
Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais
Barry Silver and Ethel Johnston PhD Scholarship in Environmental Science
UBC Okanagan Graduate Research Scholarships
UBC Okanagan Public Scholar
My research extends across the general areas of wildfire science, environmental sensors, forest fuel risk assessment, remote sensing, and data visualization. The overall research goal is to mitigate wildfire risk by improving understanding and real-time monitoring of forest fuels within the wildland-urban interface. Wildfire is a dynamic natural ecological process required by many species to complete their lifecycles or create a suitable habitat mosaic. Fire suppression can lead to a dangerous build-up of fuels and as temperatures increase and precipitation patterns change due to climate change, high frequency-low intensity fire regimes are pushed towards low frequency-high intensity regimes with wildfires that cannot be suppressed, destroying homes and requiring mass evacuations of communities. In order to allow some fires to burn to support ecosystems while focusing limited resources where they have the most social benefit, the wildland-urban interface has become a priority for fire risk mitigation. Advances in remote sensing, internet of things (IoT) sensors, and data visualization dashboards provide an opportunity to rapidly estimate and communicate fire risk around human settlements.
In the summer of 2022, our research team established 57 automated weather stations in the Kelowna wildland-urban interface. These stations comprise low-cost temperature, relative humidity, precipitation, wind, and soil moisture sensors and a microcomputer to package the data and transmit it through the cellular network to the internet and ultimately our databases at UBC-O. We collected samples of live and dead vegetation at these stations during July and August and calculated relative fuel moisture content by weighing the samples before and after oven drying. We built open source web dashboards that include an interactive map and graphs of user selected meteorological sensor data (temperature, relative humidity etc.). I am currently working on a statistical analysis of the weather and fuel moisture content data to develop a relational model that will use the weather data to estimate fuel moisture in real-time at each station.
During 2023 we plan to extend this research by increasing the number of stations and including drone-based remote sensing missions at each station to further characterize the forest fuel structure and condition. LiDAR and hyperspectral sensors on the drone will collect 3D data of the trees, shrubs and understory and their relative health and dryness. These data will be used to improve the weather-based fuel moisture relational model. Finally, we will extrapolate the station data to the larger wildland-urban interface area using airborne and satellite remote sensing and machine learning algorithms.
We continue to improve the dashboards based on feedback from the BC Wildfire Service. We plan to develop a public-facing dashboard as well to directly engage the public. Successful wildfire mitigation in the wildland-urban interface requires public support as fuel mitigation activities such as prescribed burns and thinning and brushing may impact some neighbourhoods. Wildfire is part of the natural ecosystem in much of the Okanagan and as recent history shows cannot be eliminated completely; however, improved fuel monitoring and management can reduce the risk of catastrophic fires in our communities.
WHAT DOES BEING A PUBLIC SCHOLAR MEAN TO YOU?
The Public Scholar Initiative provides opportunities to connect with the public and other UBC PhD students across different disciplines. The traditional products of PhD students are not always easily accessible: academic papers and presentations at academic conferences are designed for specialized audiences not the general public. The pathways from advances in science to positive change on the ground can involve a lot of steps, with each step requiring time and other resources, reducing the likelihood that the full journey will be completed. I believe that by making wildfire science more publicly accessible I can increase support for the fire mitigation work needed to reduce fire risk today, providing a more immediate and direct benefit to communities. Connecting with the public also enriches research by broadening the perspectives and assumptions of the work. The same is true with connecting with other PhD students. Discussing research projects with students from other disciplines helps me better understand the wider context of my work including its potential application in other areas or limits I hadn’t considered. The PSI helps to break down the walls between science and community and between disciplines.
IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU THINK THE PHD EXPERIENCE CAN BE RE-IMAGINED WITH THE PUBLIC SCHOLARS INITIATIVE?
My undergraduate and MSc experiences lead me to think that as research most often takes place within a specific discipline, most of the faculty and students that one connects with during a PhD program are typically working within that discipline. The research is specialized with a specialized language and body of knowledge. Students work alone with periodic contact with supervisors or in research groups working on similar projects. The goal is to address specific research questions to advance the specific discipline. The PSI brings people together across disciplines with the explicit goal of increasing the public benefit of each student’s work. This provides an optimistic and inclusive framework for expanding and enriching the PhD experience. Instead of focusing completely on the research question, we will also try to understand research in other areas and share our research goals with each other and with the public. This encourages us to improve our ability to discuss our work in a less technical language as well as opening ourselves to different ideas and ways of understanding and conducting research. I also find the challenge of addressing the public benefit inspiring and energizing and hope this will help me power through the long days of writing ahead!
Another cool dimension of the initiative is the PSI organized events on topics such as climate change and translating science into policy. These events are designed to help us improve our impact on important social challenges. I imagine in the future more of these events will be held in Kelowna so that we can attend in person and they can be more effective as networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities.
HOW DO YOU ENVISION CONNECTING YOUR PHD WORK WITH BROADER CAREER POSSIBILITIES?
Career opportunities in wildfire science are increasing around the world. Governments at all levels are now very aware of wildfire socio-economic risks and agencies such as Natural Resources Canada, the BC Wildfire Service, and the Union of BC Municipalities are hiring people with wildfire science expertise. Our real-time fuel monitoring project already has a connection with the BCWS. I have also been involved in multistakeholder wildland-urban interface projects in the West Kootenay region of BC. These include projects in the Slocan Valley led by the Slocan Integrated Forestry Cooperative (SIFCo) and projects near my home in Nelson led by Kalesnikoff Lumber Co. and BC Parks. Working on these cutting edge projects gives me much respect for these fire risk reduction innovators and experience with the day to day work has helped me find my ground in this research.
HOW DOES YOUR RESEARCH ENGAGE WITH THE LARGER COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL PARTNERS?
My interest in wildfire mitigation predates my work at UBC-Okanagan. While working at Selkirk College in the West Kootenays I established partnerships with community forest organizations, forestry companies, BC Parks, and the Regional District of Central Kootenay to conduct remote sensing research alongside their mitigation projects. The current real-time fuel monitoring project at UBC-O includes partnerships with Rogers Communications Ltd and BCWS. With the support of the PSI program, I intend to build on these connections to create communications including web applications and short videos designed to engage the public in wildland-urban interface fire risk mitigation work. I think that these proactive projects can bring hope to some people who may feel overwhelmed by climate change and fire impacts. They are also great examples of collaboration between scientists, land managers, and civil society addressing climate change which I think makes a great story. Drones, LiDAR and hyperspectral imagery provide very cool visualizations of forests that help to explain the research and engage the public.
HOW DO YOU HOPE YOUR WORK CAN MAKE A CONTRIBUTION TO THE PUBLIC GOOD?
I hope that this work contributes to the public good by reducing wildfire risk to communities. This can happen directly, by developing a real-time fuel monitoring network that can improve fuel treatment planning, fire modelling, and fire operations in the wildland-urban interface. It can also happen indirectly through increasing public support for fuel treatments including prescribed burns, brushing and thinning. I also hope it helps to reduce the eco-anxiety some people feel in the face of a changing climate and increasing wildfire in the Okanagan by providing an example of how science and communities can work together to respond to these changes. We also hope that our real-time fuel monitoring work will encourage other kinds of real-time environmental monitoring that also contribute to the public good.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE A GRADUATE DEGREE?
I had been coordinating geospatial and remote sensing research at Selkirk College for over a decade and became very interested in the advances that new data sources and analysis methods were bringing to landscape ecology in general and forest science in particular. Emerging technologies including drone-based remote sensing using LiDAR and hyperspectral sensors and analysis with machine learning were disrupting long established methods that used digital airphotos and statistical regressions to create landscape models. Fuel characterization in the wildland urban interface struck me as a timely and important application of these technologies. I was excited to elevate my career to the next level by taking the deep dive that a PhD in wildfire science requires. Learning about real-time sensors has been an unexpected bonus.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO UBC OKANAGAN AND STUDY?
I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Landscape Architecture and MSc in Geography at UBC Vancouver so I was very familiar with the excellence of the university. Dr Mathieu Bourbonnais was looking for a PhD student to take on wildfire research and this proved to be a perfect match for my interests and experience. I also love the communities and landscapes of BC’s interior. I’ve lived in Nelson for over 25 years!
Ian Parfitt is a UBC Okanagan Public Scholar. Learn more about the Public Scholars Initiative (PSI).