Hawai'i State News

New funding to focus on future prevention of wildfires, trauma-informed education

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Lāhainā on Sept. 28. Photo Courtesy: Monique Chyba

Four University of Hawaiʻi-led projects have received a total of approximately $800,000 in expedited RAPID grants from the National Science Foundation in the wake of the deadly Maui wildfires.

RAPID funding is used for proposals having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural disasters.

Three projects focus on data science, and have a concentrated effort to help prevent and react to future wildfires in Hawaiʻi. They include: a multi-hazard monitoring and detection system, computer modeling to assist wildfire response, and wildland and urban fire modeling using high performance computing models.


They will address contributors to fires such as invasive grasses and non-native trees such as cook pines and eucalyptus. The fourth project focuses on the human element and involves University of Hawai‘i researchers meeting with educators, youth, community members and cultural practitioners to understand the wildfire impact on K–12 education and learn how trauma-informed STEM education could assist with processing and recovery.

Multi-hazard monitoring and detection system

The Lāhainā fire was exacerbated by drought, high temperatures and winds from Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the islands. This project combines the University of Hawai‘i’s climate mesonet system (a densely located set of observation stations) with Northwestern University’s Sage Artificial Intelligence-enhanced instrument platform to build a multi-hazard monitoring and detection station for natural disasters such as fires, high winds and floods. The system is being deployed near the Lāhainā fire site, to gather data vital to the recovery effort.


The project will gather essential climate and pollutant data to aid clean-up activities in Lahaina, and obtain performance and reliability data, guiding both instrument enhancements and Lāhainā’s recovery planning. Where possible, local students on Maui will be recruited to participate in the instrument construction, data gathering, analysis and visualization effort.

Computational modeling of wildfire management

Accurate and timely predictions of how a wildfire could spread are essential to inform people, minimize the loss of lives and mitigate damage through effective suppression activities. It is critical to improve on these processes in the aftermath of the devastation of the Lahaina fires. This project, led by University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa graduate faculty and Maui resident Alice Koniges, will develop wildfire computer models that have the potential to save human lives and infrastructure in future wildfires using mathematical concepts called level-set methods and Hamilton-Jacobi equations.


Wildland and urban fire modeling

With Lāhainā being in an isolated location with limited wind and environmental observations, other data sources will help to advance modeling and simulation research before these sources are lost. This project will capture data from multiple sources including social media and time-stamped photos—organized with AI-enhanced methods for data gathering, processing and infusion.

The work will show the importance of data in the understanding of how a wildfire is propagated inside a community and its interaction with urban structures, with an additional goal of educating the public and enabling the Hawaiʻi government and emergency response personnel to make decisions in the aftermath of the disaster.

Trauma-informed STEM education

In this project, University of Hawai‘i researchers will focus on Maui’s educators and youth. They believe that to move forward from the tragedy, it is important to understand the impact of the multiple layers of immediate trauma on K–12 education and learn how trauma-informed STEM education could assist with processing, healing and recovery.

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