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CI Earns NSF Grant to Study Wildfire Effects

Camarillo, Calif. – A new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help CSU Channel Islands (CI) students study the effects of wildfire on the area’s ecosystem.  The grant funds a collaborative research partnership between CI, UC Santa Barbara and University of Colorado Denver to systematically examine the impacts of wildfire on chaparral and watersheds.

Linda O’Hirok, a lecturer in CI’s Environmental Science & Resource Management program, is leading six students in the project this semester.  A main focus of their investigation is Big Sycamore Canyon, which burned during the May 2013 Springs Fire that scorched 24,000 acres and threatened the CI campus.  They’re comparing the resilience of the recently-burned landscape with three similar sites in the region: a tributary of Matilija Creek that burned during the July 1985 Wheeler Fire, a tributary of Malibu Creek that burned in 1993, and an unburned tributary in Wildwood Canyon.

“The growing danger of wildfires has increased our need to understand the way watersheds respond,” said O’Hirok. “By studying and measuring the post-fire runoff and erosion at four different sites in four different stages of recovery, we can piece together a compelling story of the short- and long-term effects of wildfire in chaparral environments.  This could help us better predict dangers from erosion and flooding after wildfire and guide emergency planning.”

The research is funded with the help of an NSF RAPID grant, which supports scientific projects that require quick response after natural disasters or similar unanticipated events.  The opportunity to study the effects of the May Springs Fire as the rainy season began prompted O’Hirok and her co-investigators on the grant, UCSB geologist (and lead investigator) Joan Florsheim and Professor Anne Chin from University of Colorado Denver, to apply for immediate funding.  Each of the three wildfire-prone campuses is studying different aspects of post-fire processes.  CI also secured permits from the California State Parks system allowing their ongoing work.

“With our campus bordering the Santa Monica Mountains and the site of the Springs Fire, we have the perfect living laboratory right in our backyard,” O’Hirok said.  “This gives CI undergraduates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved in the early stages of an ecological investigation that’s evolving right in front of them.”

O’Hirok and the six students are already busy surveying streams, measuring sediment released by wildfires, monitoring changes in channel flows, and documenting the impact on surrounding vegetation and habitats.  They began their work in September, taking detailed measurements of the areas’ topography and vegetation and setting up motion sensor cameras to clock the movement of debris.  After each rain, O’Hirok and the students return to catalog changes brought by the precipitation.

For more information, contact Linda O’Hirok at 805-437-2696 or

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