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NSF Career Award to help predict landslides after fires

A woman in a hard hat kneeling before a soil pit dug on a burned forest landscape
Idil Akin collecting soil samples after the 2018 Mesa Wildfire

Early on the morning of January 9, 2018, a landslide careened down the mountains above the community of Montecito, California.

Heavy rains on steep, denuded hillsides that had burned in a large wildfire the summer before created conditions for a deadly mudflow. A total of 23 people died.

Predicting which soils and mountainsides are susceptible to similar events after wildfires is the goal of a new National Science Foundation Early Career Development grant awarded to Idil Akin, Colf Distinguished Professor in Geotechnical Engineering in Washington State University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The prestigious five-year, career awards are intended to provide significant research support to young faculty beginning their careers who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

In recent years, post-wildfire landslides have been identified as a serious risk to communities after wildfires, but the fundamental mechanisms of how and why they happen in certain areas are not yet well understood. Sometimes slides happen soon after a fire, and sometimes they happen a decade later. A changing climate means that large and hot wildfires are increasing as well as more, high-intensity rainfall events.

“That is a perfect recipe for a landslide,” Akin said. “It’s time to understand why these slides happen, so that in the future, we can estimate them or identify the places that are vulnerable, so we can do something about it. There is currently no wildfire-specific approach to evaluating the landslide susceptibility of burned hillslopes.”

As part of the approximately $600,000 award, Akin will start to develop a wildfire-specific framework for analyzing the stability of hillslopes, looking at factors such as the time since the wildfire, saturation of soils, and forest recovery after the wildfire. Akin will be measuring soil behavior from the microscale to field scale with a detailed experimental program. The field and laboratory data will be combined with spatial data from remote sensing scans and aerial photographs.

The research will also be integrated with an education program that aims to train a new generation of engineers to analyze and alleviate the risk of post-wildfire landslides, inform policy makers, and promote community education about such risks.

Originally from Turkey, Akin first experienced large-scale wildfires when she moved to the western U.S. and took a position at WSU in 2017.

“Before I moved here, I didn’t know wildfires were such a big deal. The first time I saw the smoke, I was shocked,” she said. “I started thinking about it and about the impacts of these fires. It’s a huge problem in this region.”

Akin hold a master’s degree and PhD in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a bachelor’s degree from Middle East Technical University in Turkey.

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