Delivering science while doing science
For Dr. Alexandra Syphard, CBI’s Senior Research Scientist, it felt surreal to be at a workshop discussing post-fire adaptation when a series of 29 wildfires, including the Thomas fire, ignited across Southern California. Syphard, who studies fire science and ecology, was in Annapolis, Maryland for The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) workshops when the Thomas fire broke out on December 4, 2017. The scientists (and nation) watched in horror as the fire, the largest in California’s state history, grew to eventually consume 281,893 acres.
Dr. Syphard, who strives to deliver accurate information to the public and policy makers, said delivering this information can be a real challenge because some decisions need to be made now, yet the science- modeling, research and analysis- is happening at the same time. “We’re in the middle of doing science,” said Syphard. “But sometimes the answers aren’t there yet. Yet we need to communicate the best science possible to policy makers.”
Syphard said there’s a lot that fire scientists know and understand but still more that needs to be known. “I see a lot of overgeneralization in media and policy. It can be dangerous to take information from one region or situation and apply to another.”
Syphard’s schedule has been particularly busy this past season. Besides attending other conferences including the International Fire Ecology and Management Congress, she participated in a panel of scientists briefing congressional staff on smarter, sounder policies to manage our forests and prevent catastrophic loss from wildfires. This panel, organized by the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute and hosted by Senator Brian Schatz, (D-HI), challenged some of the prevailing thinking regarding wildfires. She was also a guest on Science Friday discussing, among other fire related issues, her recent publication “Human presence diminishes the importance of climate in driving fire activity across the United States”.
Throughout it all, she tries to stay focused on the goal of delivering accurate information to the public and policy makers, not just before and during a fire, but also after, when questions and debate arise over reconstruction and redevelopment.
“What worries me,” said Syphard, “Is that people night make decisions based on poor science, which could lead us in the wrong direction and possibly make things even worse.”