Smokejumping and the Science of Megafires

Smokejumping and the Science of Megafires

08 November 2010

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USA —  Are we in the age of megafires?

Many scientists think the era of megafires is upon us, and not just because of the massive fires Russia suffered this year. Three of the eight worst forest fire years on record occurred in the past 10 years, according to fire experts.

A combination of rural development, climate change and years of firefighting policies that allowed brush to accumulate have set the conditions for massive blazes, and firefighters and researchers are investigating new ways to understand and fight megafires. Popular Mechanics visited the Fire Science Lab at Missoula, Mont. — the birthplace of “smokejumping” and the largest fire research lab in the world — to get a glimpse of how fire fighters use vast amounts of data, technology and some high-risk DIY to defeat tomorrow’s conflagrations.

Field Tests

There are approximately 150,000 firefighters in the United States. Nearly 75 percent are dedicated to urban and suburban structures; some 40,000 fight forest fires, and then there are the handful of smokejumpers — about 270 — who parachute into the heart of a fire.

These extreme firefighters monitor a fire’s movement and prescribe burns to stop the spread. Missoula is home to the first and largest smokejumper station in North America (there are six others), as well as one of the world’s largest fire sciences research laboratories.

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Predicting the behavior of a fire is a deadly serious art. Fires can shift quickly, creeping up on crews, or suddenly flare out of control. Modern computer models, combined with field data, are used to predict a fire’s movement with unprecedented accuracy. The International Crown Fire Modeling Experiment is a six-year research project to improve the physical modeling of how fire leaps from treetop to treetop, called a crown fire.

The researchers set 18 high-intensity crown fires in the Northwest Territories, with more than 100 participants from 14 countries observing, to learn when to fight a fire and when to let it burn.

“When I started out, all forest fires were bad and we had to put them out by 10 the next morning,” says Kevin Ryan, a forest fire ecologist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. The so-called 10 am rule was standard practice until the mid-’80s, when an idea took hold: Fires are a natural occurrence — and if you stop them all, brush and old growth can pile up, triggering dangerous megafires.

In field testing, firefighters on the ground use digital models to determine the correct strategy. But for greater control of fire conditions — wind, humidity, temperature and biomass — fire scientists turn to the lab. In the main burn room in the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, one of the biggest of its kind in the world, infrared, video and other sensors measure the rate at which plant materials are converted to fire, as well as the radiation, convection and conduction of that fire.

This information helps researchers to determine how, among other things, invasive species and climate change can affect fires, and the many ways that fires alter the flow of nutrients in an ecosystem.

Missoula Smokejumpers

When it comes to forest firefighting, smokejumpers are at the top of the food chain. Before you can become a smokejumper, you need at least four seasons of experience with forest fires — and then the training begins. We are told that most smokejumpers, contrary to the risk inherent in the job, aren’t in it for adventure.

“I don’t consider myself a risk-taker,” says 36-year-old smokejumper Dan Cottrell, of Missoula, Mont. “The most dangerous thing I do is drive here.”

The draw for smokejumpers, Cottrell says, is working outside and traveling a lot. And there IS a draw: of the 600 applications received, there were only five hires this year. The starting pay for a smokejumper is around $26,000, plus overtime and hazard pay (which kicks in upon being asked to jump into an uncontrolled fire).

A smokejumper’s gear can mean the difference between life and death. Everyone carries a GPS unit to give his or her coordinates as well as help navigate as the firefighter hikes to the fire (usually about a 5-mile trek), a radio, a cellphone (which, Cottrell says, works in a surprising number of places they jump), a satellite phone, as much as 10 gallons of water, gloves, a hard hat and a collapsible fire shelter, made out of aluminum foil and woven silica, that traps breathable air and deflects some of the heat if a fire takes a bad turn.

Smokejumpers inspect — and patch — their own parachutes. After fighting a fire, the jumpers hang their gear back in this room and inspect the 28- to 32-foot piece of material, square by square.

The material is nothing special: sparks will burn holes in this ripstop nylon, and often do, likely making these the most damaged and repaired parachutes in the business. And, yes, smokejumpers know how to sew. Having this skill, Dan Cottrell says, is a comfort during a drop.

“Our people are more conscientious in parachute repair,” he says. When you jump out and look up to see a bunch of patches on your parachute, Cottrell says, it is a bit disconcerting, “but you know who patched it.”

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