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NSF Awards $20m to Montana SMART FIRES Partners

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $20 million to a group of Montana University System (MUS) researchers. The Sensors, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence in Real Time for Fire Science (SMART FIRES) is a partnership between Montana State University, University of Montana, Salish Kootenai College, Little Big Horn College, Montana Technical University, and Flathead Valley Community College.

In addition to deploying sensor infrastructure related to prescribed fire usage and its impact on communities, SMART FIRES is focused on education and awareness programs at Montana’s Tribal Colleges, two-year community colleges, K-12 schools and out-of-school-time programs. The Education, Outreach and Diversity (EOD) aspect of the program encompasses the development and integration of curriculum, hands-on kits, and a “Sensing Fire” field school through which SMART FIRES graduate students are cross-trained on the research thrusts while also learning broader impacts skills such as science communication. 


“Our EOD efforts for SMART FIRES are an integral part of this project over the next five years,” said EOD Lead Suzi Taylor, who is director of the Science Math Resource Center at Montana State University. “We will also work with the K-12 teachers and informal educators with the ultimate goal of workforce development options for our state’s youth.”


The EOD aspect of the project also includes museum exhibits, a field trip program, and  statewide citizen science activities at individual community centers, local libraries, and senior centers.


“The SMART FIRES program is focused on developing the insight and predictive ability needed to use prescribed fire effectively and manage prescribed fire emissions in ways that limit their impact on Montanans and Montana communities.  Realizing this  goal will require knowing how prescribed fire behavior depends on fuel properties, topography, and environmental conditions,” said SMART FIRES Principal Investigator Robert Walker, the College of Letters and Science Distinguished Professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at MSU. 


Walker said that project success hinges on creating critical  infrastructure – including the development and deployment of  “smart” sensors utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology. Advances in engineering and computer science will be inextricably coupled with  the team’s involvement with the local communities.


“Our ultimate ambition is to provide awareness, training, and inclusive pathways for participants throughout the state to learn about and understand prescribed fire dynamics,” Walker said. “By accomplishing our goals, we will be able to help Montana develop a strong workforce in the fields of ecosystem management, optical engineering, AI/ML, environmental chemistry, and social science. We will also become a leader for states throughout the western U.S. who are faced with increasing threat from wildfires and are developing strategies to minimize wildfire risk.”


SMART FIRES is part of the Montana NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program and details can be found at


The program is funded by NSF award number 2242802.


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