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Marshall Fire: The University of Colorado Boulder co-leads aerial drones project to study impacts of fire

Jacqueline Zdebski, bottom left, of the RAPID Natural Hazards Reconnaissance team, controls the drone, which is lifting off. The University of Colorado Boulder, Purdue University, Oregon State University and other colleges are using aerial drones to study impacts of the Marshall Fire in the suburban communities of Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Jacqueline Zdebski, bottom left, of the RAPID Natural Hazards Reconnaissance team, controls the drone, which is lifting off. The University of Colorado Boulder, Purdue University, Oregon State University and other colleges are using aerial drones to study impacts of the Marshall Fire in the suburban communities of Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Rapidly spinning propellers created a low humming sound as a drone prepared for flight Friday.

The unmanned aircraft flew up about 60 meters to document the debris and devastation the white snow almost hid from sight.

The drone moved back and forth, capturing images of the rubble where homes once stood.

The drone is a key tool experts from the University of Colorado Boulder, Oregon State University and Purdue University are using to study the Marshall Fire burn site. The project is a co-led study by CU’s research group, Resilient Infrastructure With Sustainability and Equity, and the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance. The study and the GEER team are both sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The project started Thursday and will go through Monday, said Brad Wham, an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department. Wham is part of the RISE group as well as the GEER team.

Jan. 28, 2022- Jacqueline Zdebski, left, ...
Jacqueline Zdebski, left, of the RAPID Natural Hazards Reconnaissance team, and Brad Wham, of the University of Colorado Boulder Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering department, watch the mapping progress. CU, Purdue University, Oregon State University and other colleges are using aerial drones to study impacts of the Marshall Fire in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

After all five drones being used for the project have finished photographing areas in the Marshall Fire burn site, the pictures will be pieced together to create a 3D image of the burn site.

“You follow an overlapping pattern, circle around and come back the other way to be able to build a mosaic of the area with a high-quality image,” Wham said.

Researchers with GEER have studied earthquakes, floods and tsunamis for years. This is the first time GEER has deployed researchers to study a wildfire, said Erica Fischer, civil and construction engineering assistant professor at Oregon State University. Fischer was deployed to Colorado as part of the research team.

“Traditionally, these towns have not been investigated by civil engineers, but now we’re trying to partner with our forest partners and colleagues and bring that knowledge, that we have from decades of studying these other hazards, into this field,” she said.

Wham said the Marshall Fire brought forth new questions and concerns for wildfire mitigation. Many of Colorado’s fires have occurred in the mountains. Wildfires can be mitigated through thinning trees and by prescribed burns.

“In this fire, many of the homes were the fuel, (and) that is a bit of a paradigm recognition to think about that,” Wham said. “Thinning homes is a tough thing to do.”

This study will also give the GEER team a better understanding of why some structures were completely lost to the fire and why others — right next door — remained intact.

The image will give cities a better look at what the fire affected, what it didn’t and why, Wham said.

“The towns and the cities are focused on the people and getting things done, and we want to try to provide them some information on how this happened, and so they can sit back and in a couple of months from now understand a little bit more and make good decisions,” he said.

Christian Ley, a CU postdoctoral researcher, watched the drone soar into the air Friday. Ley completed her Ph.D. in environmental engineering at Purdue University. She is now working with a Purdue professor, who is on the GEER team, to test wells that are within the Marshall Fire burn site.

“We are testing for metals and volatile organic compounds,” she said. “There’s been a lot of people who reached out to us who are pregnant or have small children.”

Jan. 28, 2022- The drone in ...
The drone in flight over Louisville. University of Colorado Boulder, Purdue University, Oregon State University and other colleges are using aerial drones to study impacts of the Marshall Fire in the suburban communities of Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Ley said they will not be able to test everyone’s wells and urged people in the Marshall Fire burn site to call and say they need to have their wells tested for volatile organic compounds or metals that appear following wildfires.

Boulder County residents with concerns regarding their wells can email healthows@bouldercounty.org.

On Dec. 30, Wham was at his home in Louisville when the fire swept through the community. Flames came within a few hundred feet of his home. This project is his answer to address the pain and devastation in Boulder County.

“The only way I know how to respond to something like this is to learn something from it, so that the hurt that everyone has experienced goes to something that is as productive as possible,” he said.

The Marshall Fire burned more than 6,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people. When the numbers are eventually totaled, it will easily be the most destructive fire in Colorado history, with more than 1,000 homes already deemed destroyed.

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