2019 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Slippery Rock University Of Pennsylvania

Forest Fire Management in Rural Yunnan, China

 Mentors: Jialing Wang and Stentor Danielson, Associate Professors of Geography, Geology, and the Environment 
Students: Phil Abegg, Anna Burtch, Haley Hartenstine, Corinne Rockefeller, Corrina Yobp

Project Abstract

Forest fire management is a complex social, economic, and ecological challenge worldwide. China is not a forest-rich country. Although the total forest area in China ranks the fifth in the world, the forest area per capita is only about one-fourth of the world average. Chinese government at all administrative levels has treated forest fire as a serious threat to forest resources. Forest fire prevention and control have been key factors in forest resource protection in China. Yunnan, located in southwestern China, has the second largest forest area and is one of the five provinces in China that have the highest number and largest sizes of forest fires. 

This SFF project uses a small Naxi ethnic town of Yunnan as the case study area to explore the issues of forest fire management in the rural areas of China with a diverse natural and human environment and an underdeveloped economy. Specifically, the objectives of this research project include two aspects, to map the forest fire risk zones in this town using geospatial technologies and to find out the public perception of forest fires and the role of local community in forest fire management. Our research team has collaborated closely with professors and students at Yunnan University in China.

This project helped students develop a better understanding of forest fire issues in China. During the visit in China, students had the opportunities to closely examine forest fire management in the rural environment of China through meeting with local university professors and students, local governmental officials, firefighters from different forest protection agencies, company managers, and village leaders. They were able to identify some similarities and differences between China and other countries, particularly, the United States, regarding forest fire management, potential causes and impacts of forest fires, and the public perception of forest fires. Besides the formal interviews and meetings, our students had interacted with local people and experienced local culture through intentionally designed activities such as visiting cultural sites and events, tasting food from different ethnic groups, and attending local performances.     

Throughout this project, students have practiced a broad range of academic and professional skills. They have learned how to conduct literature review and research design, how to collect and analyze spatial data to create final maps using geospatial technologies, how to design and conduct interviews, and how to analyze the interview results. In this project, students have practiced their written and oral communication skills in different ways, for example, documenting fieldwork, maintaining daily trip blogs, interviewing local people, developing project reports and conference abstracts, and so on. By participating in this project, students have gained hands-on experiences in using geospatial technologies and interview methods to effectively study forest management issues, which will help prepare students for their future job applications. This cross-cultural immersion experience also helped students develop a global mindset and skills necessary in the globalized world.

Phillip Abegg
I was a part of a project that studied the causes of forest fires in Yunnan China. We had two main focuses for our project: the social aspects of forest fires and the technical aspects that involved the use of GIS (Geographic Information System). Since the 2019 Fall semester, we have worked on both aspects of the project weekly. With the social side we have decided to compare firefighting policies in China with the policies from other countries around the world. On the GIS side we have redone much of our final map because we reconsidered what factors were the prevalent causes for forest fires. Thanks to some incredibly valuable input from Yunnan University students and professors, we were able to improve our GIS project and modify the social aspects. Being able to meet with Chinese government officials, firefighters, and local residents was a valuable opportunity and one I truly appreciate. Experiencing Chinese culture was another part of the trip I truly enjoyed. Visiting and living in a culture that is entirely different from ours helps open your mind to a much more globalized view.

This project has helped prepare for a future career in the environmental field and an opportunity that I will never forget. I was able to gain vital GIS experience which I hope to use in my future career. My writing skills have also improved as we have had to put together various reports and notes. We were planning to present our research at the ASIANetwork conference at Columbus, Ohio and the Annual Meeting of American Association of Geographers (AAG) at Denver, CO. However, both meetings were canceled due to the recent pandemic. Regardless, this project has helped me learn much more about Chinese culture and appreciate different societies.

Anna Burtch
I had the opportunity the past year to be involved with a project that studied forest fires in Yunnan, China. Originally, the project focused on developing a GIS (Geographic Information System) map of forest fire risk zones and conducting interviews using the Q-method with various people throughout the rural area of Yunnan, China. However, the project was changed in order to better represent forest fire management and policies in China. We decided to reject the Q-method aspect of the project and instead conduct informal interviews with Chinese government officials, local residents, local forest fire managers, and fire fighters. Before we went to China we developed a GIS map of forest fire risks zones. Again, while in China we realized that we had to add and drop certain elements of the map to more accurately represent the forest fire risk zones. Once we had conducted our research on site, we went back to the US to revise the GIS and human geography portions of the project. We furthered our study by comparing the forest fire management policies of Yunnan to the ones in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and California.

This project prepared me in my field of environmental studies and environmental education. With a newfound passion for research, this SFF project showed me that I have the ability to successfully conduct a research project. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, our project was delayed and we were unable to present our research at the Annual Meeting of American Associations of Geographers (AAG) and the ASIANetwork Conference.  Hopefully, in 2021 we will have the opportunity to present our project at one or both of these conferences. 

Haley Hartenstine
In July 2019, myself and four other students traveled to southwest China with two of our professors to conduct research on forest fires in a small rural village called Lashi Town in Yunnan. During this experience, we obtained a lot of new knowledge about forest fire management and occurrence in the area. We have spent the past two semesters reassessing our GIS (Geographic Information System) map and social science research, figuring out better ways to represent the data we collected on our trip. We made a new forest fire risk zone map for Lashi Town, implementing the new knowledge we received. We also refocused our social science on forest fire policies in Yunnan, as opposed to Q-method interviews.

Overall, this was a once in a lifetime experience that taught me a lot about the world, and about myself. I learned invaluable skills, including how to work with a team conducting research, how to be flexible when things don’t go exactly as planned, and how to put my GIS skills to practical use in the world. This research project was my first time conducting research on this level, and my first time leaving the United States. This project opened new doors for me, mentally and academically. It inspired me to continue in academia, and to accept a master’s assistantship, conducting research in the Forestry and Natural Resources department at Purdue University in the fall of 2020. I am incredibly thankful for my experience conducting research with fellow students and professors through ASIANetwork’s fellowship program.

Corinne Rockefeller
In July 2019, myself and four other students along with two professors traveled to China to research forest fires in the Yunnan province. The purpose of our research was to learn about forest fire management practices and policies, how forest fires impact this region, and the forest fire risk zones of the study area. We also sought to understand people’s perception of wildfires. Over the course of three weeks in China, we interviewed officials and locals in Kunming and Lijiang. Prior to our trip and after returning, we have worked to create a fire risk zone map of our study area, Lashi Town, located in Yunnan. We have also done research on other countries’ wildfire management practices and policies in order to compare other practices to the wildfire practices and polices we observed in Yunnan. Along with researching forest fire management practices and policies, we had the opportunity in this project to experience performances, visit cultural landscapes, and taste new cuisines. These experiences left us with lifelong memories.

I am beyond grateful for this Student-Faculty Fellow opportunity. I gained new perspectives through learning about wildfires in the context of China and developed the skills necessary to carry out a research project and to communicate with people in formal and informal settings. This project allowed me to understand the value of field research and helped shape my future plan in seeking other environmental research opportunities either at a graduate level or in my career. This project also provided me opportunities to interact with different cultures, which has and will make me a more well-rounded and understanding individual.

Corrina Yobp
Traveling to Lashi Town, China, to assess prior forest fire risk mapping and complete the human geography part of the project led to the conclusion that adjustments needed to be made to the original research plan.  Clearer divisions exist between development, agriculture, and forests in the rural Yunnan Province of China than in the United States, an observation that caused substantial modifications to the human geography aspect.  Instead of our initial plan that no longer had many implications on life in this area, we built off our new knowledge by researching forest fire management policies in different countries for comparison, with each student creating a literature review for a specific country or region.  The forest fire risk zone map was also edited using different weights, distances, and satellite image classification after realizing errors and better methods when visiting China and speaking with professionals there.  The result is a final map showing the varying levels of forest fire risk at this location based on factors including slope, aspect, elevation, land use, proximity to settlements, and proximity to roads.  Initial preparations for conferences were cut short due to cancellations, although all other deadlines were met and the core ideas of the SFF Program were achieved through this project. The issue of forest fire risk in China was explored, interviews were conducted that fostered interaction with the people of Asia, group work was pursued that developed valuable communication skills, and research in GIS and human geography led to student career and professional preparation. The quality knowledge derived from detailed research and cultural immersion was so rewarding that earning a higher degree, traveling internationally, and using research to educate others in the field of interpretation are all now part of my future plan brought on by this opportunity.