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Mason researcher prepares vulnerable communities for wildfire impact

Alireza Ermagun
Photo by Robert Ritchie

Scientist at George Mason University leads collaboration to establish disaster resilience prototype using an interactive map to protect vulnerable regions in California.

Alireza Ermagun, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science at George Mason University, leads a project titled “Snuff It Out: Extinguishing the Disparity of Access to Shelters for Disadvantaged Communities in Wildfire-Prone Areas” to optimize response to the growing menace of wildfires. 

The project will address shelter access when wildfires occur and has the potential to revolutionize disaster preparedness and response strategies, serving as a blueprint for fostering resilience in communities facing the escalating threat.

This collaboration, supported by a $397,365 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, focuses on disaster resilience in Lake County, CA which grapples with persistent wildfires. The comprehensive examination of shelter access differences, in a broader sense, also seeks to better comprehend the challenges faced by marginalized communities in California. 

“Access to shelters is indispensable in transforming wildfires from potential tragedies into manageable emergencies,” Ermagun emphasized. The project involves the development of an interactive map, serving as a platform for both public officials and community members to plan and implement disaster resilience strategies,” he explained. 

Since 2015, wildfires have consumed over 60% of the county, disproportionately impacting its disadvantaged residents. With wildfires increasing in severity and frequency, Ermagun stresses the urgency of this research which unfolds in three phases: assessing disparities of access, optimizing equity through preparedness strategies, and developing an interactive model to reduce the vulnerability of marginalized communities to wildfires and the cascading hazards such as debris flows and flooding. 

The “Snuff It Out” project employs an interdisciplinary approach, collaborating with Farshid Vahedifard from Tufts University, Chief of Police Kathy Lester of the Sacramento Police Department, Leah Sautelet from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and Nick Widmer and Gabriela Perez Albarracin from the American Red Cross.

Vahedifard emphasized the importance of community collaboration in addressing natural hazards, stating, “Having been fortunate to have very supportive community partners in the study area, we aim to work closely with the community to co-develop and implement a methodological framework to improve access to shelters during natural hazards and extreme events for all communities while prioritizing marginalized communities to account for their lower risk threshold and adaptive capacity.”

Echoing the commitment to community collaboration, Sautelet, serving as the Emergency Services Manager for Lake County, articulated the synergy between the project’s aims and local emergency management objectives. “Utilizing this innovative interdisciplinary approach, the project has the potential to strengthen both public welfare and emergency management endeavors. I am pleased to build upon the collaborative groundwork laid by retired Sheriff Brian Martin. Rooted in Lake County’s steadfast dedication to protecting public safety, the project seamlessly aligns with our overarching objective of enhancing community resilience as a whole. By providing crucial data for comprehensive planning and preparation, it seeks to reinforce our ability to respond effectively during times of crisis.”

Lester, expressing support for the initiative, highlighted its potential to make a significant societal impact. “I am excited to support this research project as it has potential widespread benefits to society by improving the resilience of disadvantaged communities and helping first responders with science-based tools to improve outcomes.” Lester’s enthusiasm underscores the project’s aim to empower both communities and first responders through evidence-based strategies.

Adding to the collective vision, Ermagun focused on the project’s commitment to addressing social inequalities, “We aim to address equity discrepancies and enhance community resilience faced by the residents during these ongoing challenges,” underscoring the project’s community-centered methodology.