Q&A with Frank Frievalt, director of the Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Institute

Retired fire chief Frank Frievalt joined Cal Poly this year as the director of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Institute. He previously served as fire chief for the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District, division chief of operations for the Sparks Fire Department and in various other leadership roles.

The Cal Poly WUI FIRE Institute, comprised of faculty, staff and students, and partnered with industry and community members, is focused on developing and evaluating methods of managing forests and designing communities in ways that reduce wildfire severity and threats to human welfare and property while maintaining environmental and community health. It is the first of its kind at a California State University campus.


What is the mission of Cal Poly’s WUI Fire Institute and what distinguishes it from other efforts?

The center’s mission is to create the most fire-resilient communities in the world. Cal Poly’s approach is distinct in that we see the wildland-urban interface (WUI) as an integrated system rather than a collection of discrete systems.

You’ve had more than 30 years of professional experience with fire, so what attracted you to the WUI Fire Institute director position at Cal Poly at this time in your career?

I am most content when contributing and believe we should strive to find the grace in every age. This position allows me to address unfinished business as a public safety professional, but now from my office rather than the field. My fire service has been rewarding beyond measure, organizing chaos and improving outcomes for things gone wrong. Losing a WUI community to wildfire is staggering; it always feels like an epic failure. Paradise has become the footnote to Lahaina and Lahaina will become the footnote to somewhere else until we make our WUI communities truly and reliably resilient to wildfire. We have much to do.

What will be the initial focus of the institute?

First, we have four major grants funding roughly 17 projects being diligently worked on by our faculty and students; I’ll ensure they have the time, resources, authority and clarity of scope to complete their work. Second, I’m bringing seven years of WUI mitigation projects and networks with me to Cal Poly and will leverage those to give our institute a jumpstart among practitioners, legislators, industries and communities. Third, we are transitioning from a multi-year start-up mode to the commencement of an institute, celebrating the process of getting here while leaning into our formidable responsibilities.

What conversations are you having with the insurance, building, lending and real estate industries to develop holistic solutions to prevent destructive wildfires and help build more resilient communities?

We are constructively breaking legacy systems through courageous conversation. Increases in vegetative fuel loads, development in fire-adapted ecosystems and climate change have accrued an unsustainable level of unmitigated global risk. We must reconcile that the environmental and financial consequences of climate change are fellow travelers, not competing interests. The message is straightforward; we need the best fire science, driving the best consequence modeling, driving the best valuation of mitigations, driving the data architecture, to improve incident response, and (this is where the real magic happens) iteratively redefine the best science through post-fire reconstruction to establish mitigation efficacy.

What is one common misconception about the growing number of fires in California and throughout the nation?

There are two. The variability of fire intensity is frequently misunderstood. A great deal of total acreage burned on any given fire happens within a beneficial range, or as “good” fire that accomplishes necessary ecologic cycles. Sustainability of these systems will require more frequent but less intense fire activity. Indeed, the institute’s most important contribution to making WUI communities fire resilient is setting conditions for acceptable land use polices that return beneficial fire back on the landscape at scale. The other is the speed and propagation of spot fires via ember cast; these are significantly worse than people imagine.

Any exciting research currently underway by Cal Poly faculty and students?

What I find most exciting is our approach to the research; it is applied in a way unique to the academic DNA of an agricultural/technical university. The research is never far from the dirt, often in the dirt. This approach supports WUI research making it to the last mile of local implementation and maintenance; anything less is merely a finer articulation of an unresolved problem. We have projects involving lidar, policy dashboards, particulate barriers, respirators, hyperspectral imaging, 3D model simulations, fire retardants, architectural design, professional development, metabolomics, actuarial valuation of risk and even some refuse truck fire research going on…that’s pretty exciting.

The center is the first of its kind at a California State University campus. Why is that?

It is based on the thought leadership of our university administrators, staff, faculty and donors. They could see over the horizon an unfolding WUI crisis in need of focused attention. My predecessors understood the need to convert this effort into an effective rhythm, and a dedicated WUI Institute was the way they chose to do so, for which I am grateful.

What are your plans for the future of the WUI Fire Institute and how can alumni help?

In addition to supporting our existing faculty research capacity through grant-sponsored programs, I plan to bring on research capacity funded independently of the grant process, which will rely on donors. The necessity for this is twofold. First, as a teaching institution, our faculty capacity for research must be shared with our responsibilities to support students in the classroom. Second, we need to be influencing the funding of WUI research, not merely responding to the legacy systems influencing it now; that requires pre-funded research capacity to lead the way in a new era of WUI risk exposures.


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