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Researcher to launch Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab at SFU to address challenges of living with wildfire

November 18, 2022

Wildfire and ecosystem scientist, Sophie Wilkinson, is joining Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management next year to kickstart the Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab.

Wilkinson addresses the challenges of living with wildfire while promoting its potential benefits. She works to understand the drivers of high severity fires, the impacts wildfire can have on different ecosystems, and how we can better manage wildfire to protect ecosystems and communities.

“I continue to be more and more intrigued by the complexities of each challenge. In particular, the potential for fire to positively or negatively impact everything from ecology to economies means there are almost endless questions that need answering,” says Wilkinson.

To better understand these complexities, she is currently looking at wildfire in peatlands, black spruce lowlands, and forests heavily impacted by insects like the mountain pine beetle as they can provide fuel for high intensity fires. “These ecosystems are critically understudied yet they can cover large areas and often exist near communities and infrastructure,” says Wilkinson.

By studying these non-typical fuels, Wilkinson advances our understanding of wildfire and helps us better prepare for future fires. “These fuels are likely to become either more vulnerable to wildfire or greater in extent due to climate change,” says Wilkinson. “I like to think that my research is giving us a bit of a leg up on what’s to come!”

As wildfire becomes more frequent locally and globally, Wilkinson is hopeful that her research will continue to inform ecosystem and resource management strategies in industries like forestry and peat harvesting. This includes providing solutions for maintaining ecosystem health, carbon sequestration and protecting communities.

“Living with wildfire is something we’re all going to have to get more used to over the next few decades,” says Wilkinson. “Fire affects the health of our forests, our timber harvest, the quality of the air we breathe, and it could impact the safety of our homes and communities.”

The new Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab at SFU will allow Wilkinson and students to continue to build our knowledge of wildfire and management strategies for fire-impacted ecosystems in a collaborative, inclusive and fun environment.

“My research lab is unique in that students will get to help shape it. I’m currently recruiting students so please reach out if you’re interested in joining,” says Wilkinson.

Students working with Wilkinson should expect to learn and apply a wide variety of skills including remote sensing, field data collection, and fire behavior modelling, through optional field seasons in Alberta or B.C. or using tools like Google Earth Engine.

Interested in getting involved with the Fire and Ecosystems Research Lab? Learn more about current opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students here.