Montana State University

MSU expert on wildfires will use Fulbright to conduct research, teach in Chile

April 20, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Dave McWethy, an MSU expert on wildfires, has received a Fulbright scholar grant. He will use it to conduct research and teach in Chile. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham). Araucaria araucana forests grow in the central region of Chile, as well as parts of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, but the tree is listed as endangered. Large fires swept through the forests in 2002. Fires in the first few months of 2015 have burned more than 10,000 acres. (Photo courtesy of Dave McWethy). The monkey puzzle tree grew all over the prehistoric world, but it is becoming increasingly rare. Sometimes called a living fossil, it has appeared in many dinosaur movies, including "Jurassic Park." (Photo courtesy of Dave McWethy).

Dave McWethy, an MSU expert on wildfires, has received a Fulbright scholar grant. He will use it to conduct research and teach in Chile. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University scientist who studies wildfires around the world now has a Fulbright scholar grant to research fires in central Chile.

Dave McWethy will use his grant both to conduct research and teach at the University of Concepción. It’s the same South American university where MSU graduate Brent Zundel is currently investigating water issues with a Fulbright research grant. Concepción is Chile’s second largest city and located near the center of the country.

“It’s an important time to look at wildfires,” said McWethy, assistant research professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science. “There have been some really large fires happening right now that are threatening communities and rare forests throughout central Chile.”

McWethy and his family will move to Chile in December, overlapping about a week with Zundel’s nine-month stay. McWethy will start his fieldwork in January, focusing on Araucaria araucana forests and wild fires. On March 1, the beginning of the university’s fall semester, he will start teaching a seminar on global fire ecology and a field course on reconstructing historical conditions. His Fulbright ends June 30.

Recent large fires near Valparaíso and Santiago destroyed thousands of homes and forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate.

“They are a huge threat,” McWethy said of the fires he will investigate with Anibal Pauchard at the University of Concepción. “They are a risk to both people and endangered forests in central Chile.”

Araucaria araucana forests grew all over the prehistoric world, but they are becoming increasingly rare, McWethy said. The tree now grows in the central region of Chile, as well as parts of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, but it is listed as endangered. Commonly called a monkey puzzle tree, it is considered a living fossil. It has appeared in many dinosaur movies, including “Jurassic Park.”

Large fires swept through the forests in 2002, and fires in the first few months of 2015 have burned more than 10,000 acres, McWethy said.

Scientists think fire activity is increasing because non-native, more flammable shrubs and tree plantations are replacing native vegetation that is more fire resistant. For example, Eucalypt trees that are native to Australia and pine trees native to the United States grow near the Araucaria araucana forests, as well as near cities and towns throughout much of central Chile.

All are highly flammable, McWethy said. This combination of flammable vegetation and warm, dry summers promotes fires that threaten communities and the few remaining Araucaria forests.

Pauchard, McWethy and Bruce Maxwell, a professor in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture, and Montana Institute on Ecosystems Director Cathy Whitlock serve together on the doctoral committee of Kimberley Taylor, an MSU graduate student studying how pine plantations influence fire activity and the ecology of native forests.

Scientists are just beginning to understand how changes in plant communities are influencing fire activity. McWethy said his Fulbright will allow him and Pauchard to build on previous research to better understand why fire activity is increasing throughout central Chile. Along with Maxwell and Andres Holz, a scientist from Portland State University, they will examine factors responsible for the recent trends and develop maps that identify where the fire risk is greatest.

The map project would be very similar to one he conducted with a Lebanese scientist, work that is about to be published in the journal, Photogrammetric, Engineering and Remote Sensing, McWethy said.

When his Fulbright ends, McWethy said he hopes that he, Pauchard and their collaborators can build on their work with funding from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.

“I think the mission of the Fulbright program, to facilitate international partnership and exchange, is really important for both countries, and it will help U.S. and Chilean scientists stay competitive,” McWethy said. “I’m really excited to work with Chilean researchers and students.”

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Its primary source of funding is an annual appropriation made by Congress to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations and foundations in foreign countries and in the United States also provide direct and indirect support.

The Fulbright Program operates in more than 155 countries. Since its establishment in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program has given more than 318,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists, scientists and other professionals the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu