University of Hawaiʻi-led projects secure $800,000 in grants for post-wildfire research

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Image of Lahaina taken on Sept. 28. (PC: Monique Chyba)

Four University of Hawaiʻi-led projects 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.

Lahaina memorial, Sep. 26, 2023. (PC: Wendy Osher)

The projects 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 Hawaiʻi 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 Lahaina fire was exacerbated by drought, high temperatures and winds from Hurricane Dora which passed south of the islands. This project combines the University of Hawaiʻi’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 Lahaina 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 Lahaina’s recovery planning. This project provides essential data for informing Lahaina’s recovery, while highlighting the advantages of adopting recent climate science and cyber-infrastructure advancements. Where possible, local students on Maui will be recruited to participate in the instrument construction, data gathering, analysis and visualization effort.

The project is led by principal investigator and information and computer science Professor Jason Leigh, and co-principal investigators Thomas Giambelluca and Christopher Shuler from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Water Resources Research Center.

“We are deeply pained by the tragic loss of lives and property in the Lahaina fire,” Leigh said in a university news release. “It’s a somber reminder of the powerful forces of nature that are poised to impact our islands at any time. We hope that our insights and advancements in state-of-the-art technology can help pave the way for better understanding and perhaps preventing such heart-wrenching incidents in the future.”

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 Hawaiʻi 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.

This research will produce a new model to provide an understanding of the complex algorithmic and mathematical basis for wildfire response that can aid in resource allocation in a real-time disaster situation such as the Lahaina wildfire. A particular emphasis is on improving human evacuation models. The project is joint with Professors Andrea Bertozzi and Stanley Osher from UCLA and Professor Hannah Kerner of Arizona State University.

The project will involve high school and community college students from the ʻĀina Data Stewards program on Maui, a program co-founded/co-led by Kerner that teaches students basic concepts in machine learning and data science while enabling them to contribute to active research projects through field data collection. The project will consider the additional risks due to fuel from non-native trees and grasses as well as terrain effects in the wildfire modeling. Additionally the project will engage and train Ph.D. students in mathematically-based methods of disaster mitigation and modeling.

“We are grateful to have experts in mathematical modeling help us to better understand and prepare for future disaster events,” said Koniges, lead principal investigator. “Additionally, the training of the next generation of modeling experts will help the future of our island communities.”

Wildland and urban fire modeling


With Lahaina 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. UH Maui College students will play a critical role in this project.

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.

The project will use advanced AI techniques deployed on University of Hawaiʻi’s high performance computing resources, as well as resources from the National Science Foundation and other national infrastructure to process the large volumes of data needed to tune and validate fire propagation and atmospheric simulations. The collected data will be archived and made publicly available.

The principal investigator of the project is Maui resident David Eder who is on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s graduate faculty in the Physics and Astronomy Department, and co-principal investigators Sean Cleveland, a computational scientist with the universityʻs Hawaiʻi Data Science Institute, and fire modeling experts at University of Nevada, Reno, University at Buffalo, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“We focus on the use of high performance computing facilities, both at UH and nationally, and the best available computational models to help understand better the sequence of tragic events that have touched and devastated so much on Maui,” Eder said. “Working directly with students to understand and prevent similar events is one small thing we can do to help.”

Trauma-informed STEM education

In this project, University of Hawaiʻi 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.

As residents and STEM educators in the state of Hawaiʻi with rich and deep roots in communities on Maui, the researchers will apply a framework that was developed by principal investigator and College of Education Professor Tara O’Neill. It involves connecting with communities, learning from the place, people, kūpuna and moʻolelo. It requires asking and providing kōkua and engaging at the invitation of the people in the place.

The horrific fires provide an invaluable source of knowledge related to both the layers of trauma resulting from catastrophic events, such as wildfires, and how trauma-informed STEM education can provide tools for recovery from trauma. There are several excellent schools and community-based STEM education programs on the island of Maui.

The project’s goal is to partner with the individual educators, community members and cultural practitioners connected with several of these programs to build knowledge (understand the nature and impact of trauma), and work with the community to build emotionally healthy STEM learning environments where the focus is processing and healing and STEM content and activities are applied as tools for processing and healing.

This project is led by O’Neill, and co-principal investigators University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Mathematics Professor Monique Chyba, Associate Professor Yuriy Mileyko and University of Hawaiʻi Maui College Assistant Professor Thomas Blamey.

“Our goal is to understand the impact of the multiple layers of immediate trauma on K–12 education to work with the community to build long-term interventions,” O’Neill said. “We believe the information we learn can help inform more mindful short-term and long-term planning by the Hawaiʻi Department of Education and other state institutions.”

Chyba added, “Learning, teaching and helping is why I came into academia, and I am honored to be able to try to do exactly that with this project.”


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