Main Navigation

Students win thousands at U’s Wildfire Hackathon

On Jan. 26 and 27, the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy held its second annual Climate Solutions Hackathon, with wildland fire as this year’s theme.

The challenge posed to University of Utah students of any major was to propose an innovative, data-driven solution in one of five categories:

  1. Prediction and forecasting
  2. Risk mitigation
  3. Alert systems and evacuations
  4. Community resiliency and rehabilitation
  5. Health hazards

The hackathon organizers encouraged undergraduate and graduate students to form teams and submit a proposal in a slide deck within 24 hours. During the in-person portion of the event, U faculty from various departments, along with local representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, engaged the different student teams with feedback and guidance. 

The Wilkes Center also provided a video mentoring space with short, pre-recorded videos of researchers sharing suggested solution pathways.

Ultimately, the Wilkes Center received 17 submissions. Below are the top three winners. 

First Place ($3,000)
Wildfire Resilience Collective

Four people smile from a glass balcony.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ross Chambless/Wilkes Center

Team Wildfire Resilience Collective: (from left to right) Elizabeth Williams, Hannah Meier, Tegan Lengyel, Rebecca Senft.

Download Full-Res Image

Rebecca Senft (Ph.D. student, School of Biological Sciences)
Hannah Meier (Ph.D student, ecology and evolutionary Biology)
Tegan Lengyel (Ph.D. student, School of Biological Sciences)
Elizabeth Williams (Undergraduate, biomedical engineering and pediatric clinical health)

Rebecca Senft was noncommittal about the hackathon until a week before. “Then I was like, yeah, I’m going to do it! I’m going to sit down and actually spend this time with my cohort members, and bond, and learn about this problem, and see what I can throw at the wall that will stick.”

Her teammate, Hannah Meier, said she had already been thinking about resilience a lot. “I lived in California during the big 2020 fires and then moved to Oregon and came here from Oregon. So, I’m very familiar with wildfires.”

Second Place ($2,000)
Fire Nest

Four headshots arranged in a square.

Team Fire Nest: (clockwise) Kalina Manova, Suhaani Shelat, Navi Brar, Sarah Choe.

Download Full-Res Image

Kalina Manova, (Undergraduate, biomedical engineering)
Suhaani Shelat (Undergraduate, mechanical engineering)
Navi Brar (Undergraduate, biochemistry)
Sarah Choe (Undergraduate, computer science)

They proposed a fire-safe home development company for communities in the wildland-urban interface and other fire-prone areas. Their idea seeks to address the home insurance crisis where many insurers in wildfire-prone areas like California are pulling back coverage or exiting the state entirely.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the fire prone areas are not really fire resistant, just due to poor planning,” said Kalina Manova. “There aren’t really many laws that enforce it. Even after a wildfire has burned through an area.”

Their idea is to increase awareness about fire-resistant homes and provide a low-cost service system to help communities implement fire-safe housing practices.

“Our development company’s goal, at the end of the day, is to help communities become more fire resistant and be able to come back easier economically and wiser from natural disasters like fires,” said Sarah Choe.

Third Place ($1,000)
Fire Smart Educational Program

Four people smile from a glass balcony.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ross Chambless/Wilkes Center

Team Fire Smart Educational Program:(from left to right) Xuan Hoang, Gaby Karakcheyeva, Brandon Saavedra, Celine Cardena, (Shreesh Srivastava not pictured).

Download Full-Res Image

Gaby Karakcheyeva (Undergraduate, biology)
Celine Cardeña (Undergraduate, sociology & gender studies)
Brandon Saavedra (Undergraduate, architecture)
Xuan Hoang (Undergraduate, multidisciplinary design)
Shreesh Srivastava (Undergraduate, computer science)

This team focused on creating a K-12 educational program around wildfire.

“I got like zero wildfire education growing up,” said Gaby Karakcheyeva. “It would be really nice if we could teach people to not start wildfires and teach people to appreciate nature and all that stuff.”

They proposed a citizen-science model for engaging communities to gather data which could be integrated into Utah’s K-12 curriculum. They also envision partnerships with the US Forest Service, which currently provides a wildland fire curriculum content, and the local Unified Fire Authority in Utah.

“We want to be able to educate our future generation on the risk of wildfires and wildlife management,” said Celine Cardeña.

All the hackathon submissions can be read and explored on the Wilkes Center’s Hackathon webpage.

You can also listen to Ross Chambless’ interviews with the winning teams on the Wilkes Center’s Talking Climate podcast


  • Ross Chambless Community Engagement Manager, Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy
    (801) 646-6067