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University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

University of Colorado Denver, Newsroom

Analyzing social vulnerability to wildfires

Simon awarded Center for Faculty Development grant for project

11/12/2013
Greg Simon, PhD

​by Megan Morrato l University Communications

DENVER – A wildfire in 1991 devastated a large residential area in Oakland, Calif. burning 3,500 homes, killing 25 people and injuring 150 others. With a long history of earlier wildfires in the area, what has this community done to reduce social vulnerability in the future? Can these lessons be transferred to locations in Colorado and througout the U.S. West?
 
To answer these questions, Gregory Simon, PhD, assistant professor in Geography and Environmental Sciences, has teamed up with Stanford University to research the root causes of fire vulnerability. Given the increased prevalence of devastating wildfires in the American West, research on the subject is valuable and urgent, Simon said.
 
With grant support from the Center of Faculty Development and resources from Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, Simon and his team of research assistants from both CU Denver and Stanford are telling the story of the devastating 1991 wildfire using an innovative mix of historical and spatial analysis techniques.
 
“The collaborative nature of this project is great,” Simon explained. “Because CU Denver and Stanford students are trained in different ways and bring different skill-sets, both parties are able to uniquely contribute to the research process and learn from one another.”
 
Simon’s research revolves around post-wildfire government recommendations, which until now, never have been fully assessed.  “We often assume that once recommendations are made, we follow them, and they are successful. However, that isn’t always the case,” said Simon. This project examines whether the recommendations, including road-widening, vegetation clearing, water infrastructure improvement, and fire-safe home construction, were followed and whether they were successful in reducing social vulnerability.
 
“We are using the Oakland fire as a baseline,” Simon explained. “After examining the effects of the Oakland fire, we can apply our findings and spatial-historical analytic techniques to other instances like several recent Colorado fires.”
 
Simon plans to implement his research back home in Colorado and eventually create something similar to Stanford’s Spatial History Lab at CU Denver. “Only after we understand the extent to which these post-fire policies are successful can we begin to make future policy improvements and protect ourselves from future fires,” he said.
 
Center for Faculty Development
Simon gained support from CU Denver's Center for Faculty Development which is the Denver campus-wide professional development center providing tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty with a range of support to excel as teachers, scholars, mentors, and leaders. The grant process this year was “highly competitive,” according to Donna Sobel, PhD, director, Center for Faculty Development,:
 
•  Total proposals received = 63
•  Request for funding totaled = $379.005.64
•  Proposals funded = 17 totaling $69,907.64
 
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