MISSOULA, Mont.--If you're going to decide how to fight fire, then you'd better know as much as possible about how it works.
That's the idea behind FireLab, a U.S. Forest Service program at the Rocky Mountain Research Station here, where scientists spend their days studying, among other things, the dynamics and behavior of fire, as well as ways to better predictively model how fire might spread.
And while, as scientists, the folks here don't set policy, it is their job to give those whose jobs is to set policy the best data possible. The goal: helping to protect the public against fire while also being realistic about how and when fires should be fought, and when it's best to leave them alone to do what they've been doing for Earth's entire history.
As part of my Road Trip 2009 project, I visited FireLab on Tuesday, as well as the Forest Service's Missoula Smokejumpers center (see video below) and got a chance to talk at length with several of the institution's leading scientists about its "end-to-end" mission: Doing fundamental science, developing new models of fire behavior and predictability, and determining how best to explain what's learned to policymakers and the public at large.
One idea that governs much of what goes on at FireLab, said research forester Mark Finney, is that, "You're going to have to pay me now, or pay me later." This concept revolves around the reality that fire happens, whether we want it or not, and communities must sometimes decide whether they want to deal with some inconvenience and allow fire officials to conduct controlled burns in order to manage areas of heavy vegetation, or whether they want to face the consequences of uncontrolled fires later.
Added research physical scientist Jack Cohen, fire is an inevitability, and the public must learn how to deal with that inevitability. Part of that, he explained, is that more than 50 percent of wildlands are "fire dependent," meaning that the successional patterns of such areas--often remote forests--as well as the species compositions and the structures of vegetation in those areas, need fire to be maintained properly.
By overly suppressing fire, humans can negatively influence species change, water quality, and set ourselves up for the possibility of much worse fires later than we would have by managing it now.
"Fire used to be relatively frequent and low intensity," Finney said. But "because of fire suppression, now, the fires we get are a completely different character. They kill everything."
All of this means, Cohen and Finney, as well as Colin Hardy, the program manager for fire, fuel and smoke science at FireLab, said, that the public would be better off understanding that fire isn't necessarily a bad thing. But in order to achieve that goal, it is incumbent on scientists like those at FireLab to be able to provide policymakers and the public with new ways of understanding fire--and what happens when a fire begins.
In the end, according to Hardy, FireLab has six main areas of research focus: Physical fire processes; Fuel dynamics; Fire ecology; Smoke emissions and dispersion; Fire management policy; and Science application and delivery.
During my visit to FireLab, one of the first things I was shown was a technology called LIDAR. This is used, explained smoke emissions and dispersion team leader Wei Min Hao, to study smoke plumes. By deploying LIDAR--on a special truck--in a fire zone, it is possible to learn as much as possible about how smoke plumes rise and disperse.
The system works by shooting an extremely strong laser at a plume and then measuring the reflection off the plume's particles. By analyzing the data that return, Hao and his team are able to put together a 3D model of a plume's dynamics, as well as its composition, both in order to research what happens with the smoke from big fires, as well as to inform the public about what they are being hit with when a fire does happen.
At the same time, Hao also manages a project which utilizes data gathered from two NASA satellites to watch for the development, in near-real time, of new hot spots from fires in the United States. Here, then, the data can be used to identify new fires--say, in remote areas where they might not necessarily be seen from the ground--and determine how quickly they're progressing.
Such technology, then, is quickly obviating the traditional mountaintop fire watch stations. As well, the data can be combined with that from LIDAR to begin to predict how fire--and smoke plumes--will spread. And finally, the data can be provided to the public through several methods, including Google Earth KML files.
Hardy then took me into FireLab's combustion chamber, where he and his team conduct various fire experiments. The chamber can be used in conjunction with an associated wind tunnel so that scientists can perform additional experiments that examine the influence of wind on fire.
In 1972, a system called the Rothermel Fire Model was developed at FireLab. Based on hundreds of experiments, the model was designed to explain the effects of varied amounts of fuel, moisture, spacing, wind speed and relative humidity on the rate of the spread of fire.
But the Rothermel model made assumptions based on the idea that heat radiation from a fire was enough to ignite new fuel, and according to Hardy, those assumptions are no longer valid.
In fact, he expects that new science being conducted at FireLab and elsewhere will at some point in the future arrive at new conclusions about how energy moves from one place to another and, likely, completely change the firespread model used around the world.
Rothermel, in other words, was the best possible science of its time, but it doesn't take into consideration the variability of conditions or changing fire behavior as it moves from the ground to a crown fire, or from a small crown fire to a rapidly developing wildfire.
Hardy said that on the science side, it may be possible to arrive at a new model within five-to-eight years, but that because the entire fire industry is based on Rothermel, it could take decades to complete the cultural transition that might arise in the labs of facilities like this.
And among the basic assumptions that must change, according to Cohen and Finney, is one that has long held that fire can spread by heat radiation alone. But during a couple of experiments I was shown in the combustion chamber (see video below), the two scientists attempted to demonstrate that they have determined this is not true.
By putting a small cluster of shredded wood directly in front of a very high temperature device, Cohen showed, plainly, that heat is not enough. But by applying that same heat to a small piece of wood, creating smoke, Finney showed he could ignite the wood by applying flame to the smoke rising off the wood.
The revelation there is that flame can ignite fuel by licking at smoke rising off that fuel. But still, it takes flame to create new flame, they argue.
The final piece of the FireLab puzzle I was shown is a set of predictive modeling systems. Known as WFDSS, or Wildland Fire Decision Support System, the technology is meant to aid firefighters, decision makers, and others with figuring out what will happen when a fire starts.
One part of WFDSS that may be of growing interest to communities is a system called RAVAR, or Rapid Assessment of Values at-Risk. This is an associated piece of technology which, Finney explained, is built around helping determine the value of property--and other things--at risk in fires.
Among the other things, he added, are species habitats, meaning that in addition to figuring out how much property value could be destroyed or saved in a fire, decision makers can also think about whether they need to protect such habitat as that of the spotted owl.
Either way, the system, which has been in trials since 2005, and which became fully operational only this year, is meant to help firefighters and others dealing with fire incidents to figure out where to put their resources.
It works by creating probability models for how fire will spread, and then, based on the probabilities, determining the value of what's at stake in that spread. And that helps with communications, too, Finney said, because if resources are deployed that save property, it is possible to then explain how much, in dollar figures, was saved.
In the end, Hardy, Finney, Cohen, Min Hao and others made it clear to me that there is nothing anyone can do to stop fire altogether. In many cases, they argue, fire is essential. But where it can be dealt with, they are creating tools to help policymakers and firefighters alike have valuable information as they battle flames--and the flames' effects--and to communicate to the public both what they should expect in a fire and what fire means to their communities.
For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.