Ji Yun Lee receives NSF CAREER award for community resilience research

A wildfire burns
As part of the approximately $520,000 award, Lee will be developing next-generation wildfire protection plans for communities that will be more interactive and dynamic than current plans, allowing for people to be more involved in preparing for and mitigating fires.

Ji Yun Lee, assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for her work in helping communities better prepare for wildfires.

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

As part of the approximately $520,000 award, Lee will be developing next-generation wildfire protection plans for communities that will be more interactive and dynamic than current plans, allowing for people to be more involved in preparing for and mitigating fires.

“As a researcher at a land-grant university, I have a responsibility to research some of the issues that our local communities face, and wildfires are a serious threat to humans, the built environment and ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest,” said Lee.

Because of climate change, land use changes, and an increasing number of people living closer to forests, wildfires have become an increasingly serious threat, particularly in the West. With a changing climate, that risk is expected to continue to grow. 

Unlike other types of natural hazards, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, however, humans have significantly more control over how much their communities are affected by fires, says Lee. About 90% of wildfires are started by people, and people can also do mitigation measures, such as removing fuels or using better building materials, to control how a fire will spread.

Ji Yun Lee

Community wildfire protection plans are used in more than 3,000 communities around the U.S. to assess risk and plan for wildfires. Agencies at all levels of government have developed risk management strategies to manage and reduce the negative impacts of fires, but these strategies are often outdated. Usually in the form of a document that is put somewhere on a community’s website, the wildfire protection plans generally are updated every three to five years with only static and rough estimates of the wildfire risks.

In spite of the fact that people are a critical factor in reducing fire risk on their property as well as in their surrounding community, most strategies to manage wildfire risk don’t get people involved.

“A lack of long-term citizen engagement and limited information flows in community-level wildfire risk management plans presents a barrier to informed decision-making of both local governments and individuals,” said Lee. 

Lee’s project integrates fire science, engineering risk assessment principles, and human decision-making processes to develop a new approach to wildfire risk assessment and management that evolves over time and captures relevant changes occurring at both an individual-property and community-oriented level. This integrated approach aims to enhance community wildfire resilience through the creation of a dynamic, interactive, next-generation platform that facilitates active citizen engagement and multidirectional information exchange. 

“This project provides students, the future workforce, federal and local governments, and the public with an opportunity to advance their understanding of wildfire risks and contribute to mitigating its negative impacts,” she said. “This project can reduce vulnerabilities to wildfires at the property and community levels by fostering collaboration between local governments and citizens while fundamentally transforming the responsibility for risk reduction from emergency personnel to that of the entire community.”

Lee holds a bachelor’s degree from Korea University, a master’s degree from Stanford University, and a PhD in civil engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. Before joining WSU in 2017, she was a postdoctoral scholar at University of California, Los Angeles.

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