Researcher discusses wildfire ignition and fire spread dynamics

Researching how fire spreads.

Rocky Mountain Research Station Research Mechanical Engineer Sara McAllister talks about and demonstrates her research on the understanding of fire ignition and the dynamics behind the spread of wildfire.

Fire as a natural process in wilderness

The U.S. Forest Service released this video today in which Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research lnstitute’s Research Ecologists Sean Parks and Carol Miller talk about their research on studying natural fire regimes in wilderness areas. Their work looks at understanding how climate change drives fire frequency and fire severity, and how climate is expected to change. They hope that the research will help us anticipate changes in fire regimes.

Do residents in the urban interface expect the fire department to save their home in a wildfire?

save home in wildland urban interface

This article first appeared on the WiRe (Wildfire Research) blog. Republished with permission:

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Do people living in the [wildland-urban interface] WUI expect the fire department to save their home in a wildfire?  Many do, but maybe fewer than you think.

Over the past few years, WRWC surveyed nearly 1600 WUI residents in three counties in southwestern Colorado. These surveys asked: “If there is a wildfire on your property, how likely do you think it is that the fire department would save your home?” People could respond on a scale from 1 (Not likely) to 5 (Very likely).

As the graphic shows, about 25% answered that they did not think it was likely (12% for “1”, 13% for “2”), another 24% placed themselves in the middle (“3”), and the remaining 50% thought it was likely (21% for “4” and 29% for “5”). As we typically find, the results look different in different communities, but the overall pattern is fairly robust to community context.

It’s sometimes assumed that everyone living in the wildland-urban interface expects that, no matter how big a wildfire might be, firefighters will be there and able to protect their individual homes. However, fire behavior can get too intense for people to be in the area, and a lack of proper mitigation can increase the danger and/or difficulty of protecting a house. Beyond that, sometimes there’s simply not enough suppression equipment or personnel available for the number of houses exposed at once. This survey question helps get at whether residents think about these factors.

We find that although this expectation is indeed common, far from everybody living in the WUI feels this way. We should consider how this affects the way we communicate about risks with homeowners, and how this can inform broader discussions among the fire service about expectations of protecting homes during wildfire.

Work continues to design improved fire shelter

Fire Shelter Tests in Canada, June 2015.
Fire Shelter Tests in Canada, June 2015.

Since we last reported on the effort to develop a better fire shelter, additional tests have been carried out on some of the more promising materials.

The image above is from tests during actual forest fire conditions in June when NASA’s Langley Research Center, the University of Alberta, and the U.S. Forest Service travelled to Fort Providence in Canada’s Northwest Territories to conduct a series of controlled outdoor burns. More tests were held in September in a full-scale fire testing facility at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

This is all part of a project that led to the creation of an organization, working with NASA and other organizations, called CHIEFS – Convective Heating Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters – a team that is working to take its knowledge of heat-shield technology for space missions and use it to help improve fire shelter technology here on Earth.

A fire shelter is a folding pup tent like device that is intended to shield wildland firefighters from radiated and convected heat if they become trapped in a wildland fire. The U.S. Forest Service moved up their plans to improve the last-resort device after 19 firefighters were killed even after they deployed shelters on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 south of Prescott, Arizona.

After the tragedy NASA got involved thinking that heat shields they had developed for space craft experiencing the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere might be useful in a new generation of fire shelters.

Mary Beth Wusk, a NASA integration manager in the Game Changing Development Program Office at Langley, said in the video below that the work she has done on this project has been the highlight of her career.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

How much sleep do tactical athletes need?

sleep firefighter
Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Charles Palmer, an associate professor at the University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, has called them “tactical athletes”. Mr. Palmer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter and smokejumper, has said:

These aren’t people who ride around in trucks and squirt water on stuff — this is really demanding from a lot of different angles. You travel around, you have to perform, they’re getting very little downtime, they have nutritional challenges … physically you have to perform really well.

A study of wildland firefighters during suppression activities in Spain found that heart rates ranged from 116 to 133 beats per minute depending on the length of the work. Researchers in Australia measured heart rates of firefighters operating hand tools that were 95 percent of their predicted maximal.

When we read an article at the Monday Morning Quarterback about managing the sleep of professional football players, we could’t help but make the comparison between those athletes and the ones who fight wildfires for a living.

According to the piece by Jennie Vrentas, an increasing number of NFL teams are emphasizing an adequate amount of sleep for their players. Below are some excerpts from the article:

A good night’s sleep is directly tied to key factors such as reaction time, mental alertness, muscular recovery and converting what you’ve recently learned into memory. That’s why the science of slumber has become one of the hottest trends in the NFL: Teams are no longer leaving it to chance that their multimillion dollar investments will manage sleep cycles all on their own.

The Dolphins and Patriots have dark rooms at their practice facilities so players can take naps. Eagles players fill out a morning questionnaire on their tablets, self-reporting how long and how well they slept the previous night.

If you run on four hours of sleep a night for a week, it’s the same as drinking a six-pack and then going to work.

“The average athlete probably needs eight to nine hours of sleep, given their physical demands,” [Washington team physician Anthony] Czeisler says, and even more if you can get it. “I wish I could say there’s a shortcut, but if you are going to be a professional athlete, you need to pay careful attention to sleep.”

A single all-nighter, or a week spent getting just four hours of sleep a night, can make one’s reaction time nearly three times slower.

The article refers to studies completed on football and basketball players, but there has also been research on how sleep affects wildland firefighters. In a study of firefighters in Australia during a four-day simulation of an assignment on a wildland fire, it was found that after two nights of being restricted to four hours of sleep their performance on a hand-eye coordination task declined. However their work output remained about the same even after consecutive nights of restricted sleep.

In a related study in Australia, Grace Vincent, a PhD student at Deakin University reported:

The firefighters report [that while working on actual fires they get] only about four to five hours sleep per night. They have trouble sleeping due to other people snoring in locations such as cabins, tents or the floor of school gyms.  Some are simply so wired after spending the whole day in emergency-mode, that they can’t switch off.

This is consistent with research in the United states, in Technology and Development Publication, Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety Report, Issue Number 13, Summer 2009:

…Sleeping in fire camp can be a challenge. Noise from generators, vehicles, and other firefighters all contribute to sleeplessness. Because almost all wildland firefighters need to sleep either in fire camps or in spike camps, they sleep in tents, on the ground, and in hot, smoky, and dusty conditions. Shift work interferes with sleep, especially for those on night shift.

Sleep log data were collected on members of five incident management teams at fire camps in California and Montana during 2008. [Note from Bill: this data appears to be from overhead team members in fire camp, not “tactical athletes” out in the field.] Data for 140 team members (36 percent female, 64 percent male) indicated that they averaged 6.1 hours of sleep, ranging from 3.5 to 9.0 hours per night. On average, team members went to bed at 9:30 p.m. They reported being awakened an average of 2.2 times per night, awakening from zero to six times per night. When team members were asked to rate the quality of their sleep, the average was 6.6 on a 10-point scale. Nearly one-fourth (23.8 percent) reported feeling tired when they woke, while 53.6 percent felt somewhat rested, 20.2 percent felt rested, and 2.4 percent felt very rested.

Eight hours of rest between work periods is inadequate because only 50 to 75 percent of the rest period is devoted to sleep. Thus it is advisable to have longer rest periods (10 to 14 hours) so workers have time for adequate sleep.

Total sleep deprivation for 1 week has led to cognitive impairment when work requires multitasking. In driving, accidents increase as sleep duration is decreased. In tasks requiring judgment, risky behaviors emerge when sleep is limited to 5 hours per night.

Behavioral alertness and a range of cognitive functions, including sustained attention, and working memory deteriorate when nightly sleep is limited to between 4 and 7 hours. Decisionmaking skills, such as the ability to assess risk, assimilate changing information, and revise strategies to solve problems based on new information are likely to suffer.

Eight hours of rest between work periods is inadequate because only 50 to 75 percent of the rest period is devoted to sleep. Thus it is advisable to have longer rest periods (10 to 14 hours) so workers have time for adequate sleep.

What about naps?

The same publication recommended naps when possible, but the length is important:

Naps restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce the risk of mistakes. To avoid waking up groggy and exhausted, workers should nap for 20 to 30 minutes OR for longer than 90 minutes. A one-hour nap places you in the middle of deep sleep, making it difficult to wake up. You will be disoriented and clumsy, might make poor decisions, and could be at risk of an injury. A 20-minute nap ends before you descend into deep sleep; a 90-minute nap catches you rising out of deep sleep.

White House announces efforts to mitigate effects of climate change on wildfires in urban interface

On Monday the White House announced several initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change on fires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Vice President Biden appeared briefly at a meeting in the Executive Office Building with 20 fire chiefs and emergency managers from the western United States.

“I can’t prove any one fire is a consequence of climate change. But you don’t have to be a climatologist, you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that things have changed, they’ve changed rapidly,” the Vice President told the group. “The bottom line is your job is getting a hell of a lot more dangerous.”

At least 37 wildland fire chiefs and professional fire associations have signed on to a commitment, according to the White House, “to ensure that firefighters have the information, training and resources required to face the current and growing threats that climate impacts are having at the WUI, and to ensure community resilience by encouraging wildland fire prevention and mitigation practices by property owners, communities, and local governments across the country”.

The administration also announced the release of a study of the Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 344 homes in Colorado Springs in 2012, titled, A Case Study of a Community Affected by the Waldo Fire – Event Timeline and Defensive Actions (it can be downloaded here, but is a large file). The report covers firefighting tactics, how structures were ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but oddly does not address to any significant extent the management, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which was one of the largest issues. (We looked at this report in more detail in another article on Wildfire Today.)

Still another wildland fire related initiative announced Monday was the release of a report commissioned by the National Science and Technology Council, titled Wildland Fire Science and Technology Task Force Final Report. The task force was comprised of 28 representatives of federal agencies with any interest or responsibility, however fleeting, for land management or wildland fire.

The group’s primary recommendation was that a standing Federal Fire Science Coordination Council be established to:

  • ensure regular exchange among the leaders of those Federal organizations that either produce or use fire science;
  • strengthen coordination and collaboration among the organizations that produce wildland-fire science and technology;
  • establish mechanisms to systematically assess user needs and priorities for science, research, and technology support; and
  • define national-level needs for Federal fire science in support of the fire-management community