SMART FIRES: Sensors, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence in Real Time Fire Science

UM photo: Prescribed Fire

Project dates: August 1, 2023 to July 31, 2028 (estimated)

*Sensors, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence in Real Time Fire Science (SMART FIRES) is a partnership among Montana State University, University of Montana, Salish Kootenai College, Little Big Horn College, Montana Technical University and Flathead Valley Community College. The vision of this partnership is to expand jurisdictional research capacity in order to address knowledge gaps associated with prescribed fire usage and to understand prescribed fire’s impact on individuals and communities. In this context, prescribed fire describes the controlled application of fire to restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire. Prescribed fire is used increasingly to mitigate severe wildfire risk in the Western U.S. SMART FIRES is guided by two foundational questions: 1) How do prescribed fire energy and emissions depend on fuel properties, topography, and environmental conditions? and 2) How do the smoke emissions from prescribed fire affect individuals and communities?” Answering these questions requires a new generation of smart optical sensors that couple emerging engineering technologies with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). SMART FIRES will build infrastructure capable of nimbly deploying these new instruments to measure prescribed fire behavior in real time. SMART FIRES researchers will develop novel methods to assess and communicate the benefits and risks of prescribed fire to the public. By leveraging jurisdiction-wide research and pedagogical expertise, SMART FireS will catalyze research capability through strategic hires and integration across disciplines and institutions. By providing vigorous, interdisciplinary training and inclusive STEM pathways for participants, SMART FIRES will develop a strong workforce in the fields of ecosystem management, optical engineering, AI/ML, environmental chemistry, and social science.

The team has changed the working project title from the one used in the proposal. The title in the proposal is Integrating Montana’s Environmental Research with Smart Sensors (IMERSS).


SMART FireS Research Thrusts
SMART FireS Research Thrusts

Thrust 1: Fire and Smoke Science (FSS) Better understand the production of remotely detectable fire radiative energy, prescribed fire emissions, and the air quality impacts at local to regional scales to improve management practices that protect people and the natural resources on which they rely. FSS Team: Lu Hu (UM), Carl Seielstad (UM), Loyd Queen (UM), Robert Yokelson (UM), Robert Walker (MSU), Xiaobing Zhou (MTU)

Thrust 2: Smart Optical Sensors (SOS) Develop ground- and UAS-based optical remote sensors using on-board computing and AI/ML algorithms where appropriate to provide data uniquely tailored to answering the questions posed across the other thrusts. SOS Team: Joseph Shaw (MSU), Kevin Repasky (MSU), Ross Snider (MSU), Timothy Price (FVCC), Cody Sifford (SKC)

Thrust 3: Social Psychology, Economics, and Ethics (SPEE) Understand how trust in information sources about prescribed fire and smoke can increase adaptive capacity and lead to better decision-making processes. SPEE Team: Libby Metcalf (UM), Kristen Intemann (MSU), Katrina Mullan (UM), New hire (LBHC)

Thrust 4: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AIML) Develop new understanding of AI and apply it to efficient processing of data and model predictions for prescribed fires and emissions characterization. AIML Team: John Sheppard (MSU), Brad Whitaker (MSU), Jesse Johnson (UM), Drew Grennel (SKC), 2 new hires (UM), 2 new hires (MSU).


For data and reserach cyberinfrastructure, SMART FIRES will partner with the MSU Library's Research Optimization Analytics and Data Services Group, the MSU Research Alliance, the MSU Research Cyberinfrastructure group, the UM IT department, the UM College of Forestry IT group.

CI Team: Venice Bayrd (MSU), Coltran Hophan-Nichols (MSU), Zach Rossmiller (UM), Sherri McWilliams (UM), Jason Clark (MSU), Todd Kipfer (MSU)


Successful implementation of project goals requires a foundational set of partnerships that provide sharing of expertise and data, access to labs and lands for smoke and prescribed burning experiments, coordination with land and resource management agencies, technology development and deployment collaborations, and access to existing communications networks. 


SMART FIRES will transform wildfire and smoke mitigation strategies by firmly rooting the science of prescribed fire in validated data and predictive models. SMART FIRES builds capacity by forging ties between researchers in environmental science, remote sensing, optical engineering, AI, and social science. Activities will span institutions across the Montana University System (MUS) and include participants from Montana’s R1 universities, 4- and 2-year colleges and Tribal Colleges. Research activities including internships, collaborative projects and extramural partnerships will create a skilled workforce capable of leading multidisciplinary projects and of communicating the rationale, benefits and risks associated with prescribed fire to the public. SMART FIRES provides participants with economic development opportunities by leveraging existing ties between SMART FIRES researchers and robust and growing optics and remote sensing industries in Montana. Seed projects specifically dedicated to supporting STEM education at Montana’s Tribal Colleges will broaden participation in SMART FIRES-related project activities, and a separate seed project program will ensure that researchers at all MUS institutions and Tribal Colleges will be able to propose ideas that expand and deepen our understanding of prescribed fire. SMART FIRES strengthens Montana’s research and economic competitiveness, develops and mentors a new workforce trained in the science and impact of prescribed fire, and creates pathways to bring the results and consequences of academic discoveries into the hands of those professionals charged with managing public and private lands across the jurisdiction.

The education, outreach, diversity and workforce development plans for SMART FIRES include activities that engage a variety of audiences across Montana; focus on broadening participation of people who have been historically excluded from STEM; and fulfill the EPSCoR mission of strengthening capacity through partnerships and infrastructure growth. 

Broader impacts activities include creating curricula and resources for K-12 teachers, pre-service teachers and informal educators; a “Sensing Fire” field school, museum exhibit and field trip program; a Science on Wheels program that visits rural communities affected by wildfire; and a statewide citizen science program that engages adults through libraries, senior centers, and other community organizations. University faculty and students who are part of the SMART FIRES research will also take part in outreach activities and serve as role models for young people interested in STEM.

Broader Impacts Team: Suzi Taylor (MSU Science Math Resource Center), Madison Boone (MSU Science Math Resource Center), Susan Kelly (MSU Empower), Aaron Thomas (UM Indigenous Research and STEM Education), Nathalie Wolfram (UM spectrUM), Todd Kipfer (Montana NSF EPSCoR - MSU), Michelle Terwilliger (Montana NSF EPSCoR - UM)