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Daniel Godwin Wins National Student Excellence Award for Fire Ecology Work

Nov. 25, 2013

portrait of Daniel Godwin

Daniel Godwin, a graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences, is winner of this year’s Edward Komarek Graduate Student Excellence Award from the national Association of Fire Ecology.

Daniel Godwin remembers the first time he helped set a forest on fire.

“My first one was at one of the University of Florida’s field stations,” he recalls. “We were burning pine flatwoods. That stuff burns pretty hot.”

Godwin is not an arsonist, but a fire ecologist. He sets prescribed fires, or fires that benefit the health and ecology of a forest, savanna, or other wildland area.

Godwin, who is a second year graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences and a Life Sciences Fellow, received this year’s Edward Komarek Graduate Student Excellence Award from the national Association of Fire Ecology (AFE). The award recognizes students who demonstrate superior academic achievement and involvement in fire-related research and activities.

Brian Oswald, president of the AFE, says Godwin received the award in recognition of his leadership and involvement in the Student Association for Fire Ecology (SAFE), which Godwin served as president of in 2012 and is currently serving as its training and education coordinator.

“Daniel is very active in arranging and promoting training exchanges and opportunities with The Nature Conservancy and other organizations and agencies throughout the country. He helped create new programs and projects in SAFE and has greatly contributed to the recent growth and development of this student organization,” Oswald says.

He also set up and leads a local chapter of SAFE at MU. The organization currently has about 30 members, 10 of whom are qualified at federal standards as wildland firefighters.

Godwin was presented with the award at a ceremony in Roanoke, Virginia, on October 8, 2013.

image shows two SAFE members standing in a forest with leaves burning on the ground

Godwin and members of MU SAFE worked on a project to reintroduce natural fire to Shortleaf Pine stands in Shannon County, MO.

Kindling an Interest in Fire Ecology

Godwin traces his awareness – if not his interest – in fire ecology to his childhood growing up in northern Florida, where wildland fires, whether planned or not, are as common as baseball in the springtime.

“Growing up in Tallahassee, I can remember many times seeing smoke and partially burnt palmetto leaves falling from the sky, and I was like ‘oh, right, it’s fire season.’ I never thought that much about fire because it was always part of the background,” Godwin recalls.

This changed when he got to college. As an undergraduate geography major at the University of Florida, Godwin was invited to work on a remote sensing project in Namibia and Botswana, where, he says, everyone talks about fire constantly.

“It’s a driving force in their land management. I never thought critically about it until I got to Namibia, where people had all these diverse opinions on it,” he says.

When he returned home to Florida, he signed up for a class on fire ecology at UF. The class gave him his first experience setting a prescribed burn.

“Leda Kobziar and Alan Long, who taught the course, would take students out to burn at the field station. They’d go through a safety briefing and then go through the plan for the day, and they had the equipment,” Godwin recalls.

This on-the-line fire experience with trained professionals, he says, is important. “Once you’re out doing it, it clarifies really quickly if this is something you like or not,” he says. “That’s something I try to get for students through SAFE at the national level and here at MU by working with state, local, and federal partners.”

Following graduation from the University of Florida, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and anthropology, Godwin got a job working as a wildland firefighter for The Nature Conservancy. As a member of a resource management support team, he was either burning or helping people prepare to burn everyday. Although he was moving quickly up the ranks into fire management positions, Godwin knew graduate school was in his future.

“I knew that I needed to go to grad school to move ahead with my fire career, because you’ll hit a ceiling,” Godwin recalls. “However, I never thought anyone would have any money to pay me to study questions about fire in southern Africa, but lo and behold the opportunity came about to study at the [University of Missouri], and here I am, enjoying it.”

image shows Godwin walking through a smoking Ponderosa pine forest

Godwin on a project to restore fire to a Ponderosa Pine forest in Angel Fire, New Mexico, as part of a multi-agency, public/private partnership to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health. (Photo courtesy David Godwin, Southern Fire Exchange)

Measuring Fire Intensity

Godwin’s graduate studies relate to how fire temperatures vary as a function of tree canopy and grass biomass in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

“It’s all looking at this idea of how do trees escape fire and what are the factors that limit their ability to recruit from the understory into the overstory,” he says. “Intuitively, you would say that tree cover would suppress grasses and make the fire not burn as hot. But, interestingly, what we are finding is that there is some sort of facilitative effect of tree cover — with increasing canopy cover, we’re getting more grass and hotter fires.”

To understand why this occurs, Godwin is studying how fire intensity and tree growth rates vary across a soil and rainfall gradient in Kruger National Park. His experiments involve setting up temperature sensors at experimental burn plots across savanna areas to monitor fire intensity and then relating this to variables such as how much grass there is, what the moisture content is, and tree canopy. He also links these data to multispectral satellite images before and after wildfires in the park to obtain a so-called ‘composite burn index.’

“It’s kind of a survey tool to link what you’re seeing on the ground to what the satellite is picking up,” Godwin explains. “We’re trying to calibrate it a little bit better in this region and seeing what potential drivers of fire severity there are.”

Godwin hopes his studies will help better predict the timing and frequency of fires across management areas and whether wildfires are affected by human decisions or by features of the landscape or climate.

“One of the things we don’t know much about is variation in fire intensity,” says Godwin’s graduate advisor Dr. Ricardo Holdo, who is an assistant professor of biological sciences. “Daniel is doing some innovative work in this area.”

Holdo was not necessarily surprised to learn that Godwin won the award from the Association of Fire Ecology. He says Godwin is always ready to help his fellow students: “He’s been a very good citizen of the lab and the department and campus.”

Godwin, who in addition to his graduate studies and his work with SAFE, is still actively involved in fire management and is regularly called up to assist with prescribed burns around the country. Although he may seem to be burning the candle at both ends, he keeps everything in balance.

“It’s kind of a tricky balance sometimes, but it’s been good,” Godwin says.

Image shows Godwin watching a fire burn

Godwin watches a fire burn at an experimental burn plot in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

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Written by: Melody Kroll

Related research strengths:
Ecology, Evolution, Plant Biology, Quantitative & Computational Biology
Related categories:
Awards