Mega-sized wind tunnel to test homes against 140 mph winds

A huge testing facility is being built in South Carolina that will be able to test the effects of winds up to 140 mph on full-size homes. In addition to testing for category 4 hurricane conditions, the lab will simulate the spread of burning embers in a vegetation fire. Researchers will evaluate the ignition potential of embers and look at ways to make homes less likely to burn when exposed to flaming debris.

The facility will use over 100 huge fans which consume so much electricity that it will only be used at full strength during off-peak hours, because it will draw enough electricity to power 9,000 homes.

Here is a video from WISTV. (If the video is not visible below, go to WISTV and on the right side of the article, click on the little red video symbol.)

Humbolt State’s fire lab

Morgan Varner in the HSU fire lab. Photo: Preston Drake-Hillyard

Humbolt State University in northern California is one of three universities in the U.S. with a fire lab. Here is an excerpt from an article in the student-run newspaper:

You smell it as soon as you walk into the Natural Resources building: that familiar campfire smell. What you’re experiencing is HSU’s fire lab. Students come here to start fires.

The fire lab is an opportunity for students to learn about wildfires in a hands-on environment and provide fire science research for agencies throughout the nation. It’s a rare resource: only three universities in the U.S. have fire labs.

J. Morgan Varner III is an associate professor of wildland fire science. He oversees the fire lab, and he’s visibly excited by his work. “Most research is mundane stuff” he says, eyebrows raised. “We get to burn stuff.”

At first glance, the lab is nothing special. It’s a medium-sized classroom with 24 seats. The fire table is a piece of steel tabletop with a low-tech, hand-drawn ruler rising vertically off of it. Varner lowers an enormous ventilation hood. Smoke is sucked out of the building, allowing indoor burns.

Varner starts a burn. He lays down cotton strings soaked in an accelerant and casually tosses a handful of Washoe Pine needles on top. He lights the ends of the string with a standard barbecue lighter. The pile of duff quickly ignites.

As the pile burns, Varner points out the height of the flames. This simple datum is the core of the fire lab’s work. It shows the energy contained in wildfire fuel- leaves, pine needles, sticks and logs – and how it burns. The way different fuels burn is key to the prevention of wildfires. Flame patterns, color and the ash and residue left behind all add to the understanding of how fuels burn. Temperature is crucial. The goal is to see how hot fires get and how much plants can withstand.


Varner laments the lack of field opportunities provided by the school. Fears of liability from the state prevent the forestry department from carrying out field studies in fire season. Some students take on summer internships involving wildfires. Varner expresses excitement and jealousy about the stories that students bring back from their experiences. He feels the learning process would be best if he could share it with them.

Soils major Katia Keston has heard great things about Varner’s program. She says almost everyone she knows in the forestry department is emphasizing in fire ecology. “There’s tons of wildland fire jobs.”

Is prescribed fire science still developing?

Last week the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) in Victoria, Australia told the Royal Commission that is looking into last year’s Black Saturday fires that he would not support a 4 to 6 percent increase in prescribed burning, partly because the science was still developing.

But a seven-member panel made up of fire ecologists, CSIRO fire researcher Phil Cheney, and Jerry Williams, former Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, said there is plenty of science available to support burning 5 to 10 percent of Victoria’s forests each year.

Cheney said a good prescribed fire will stop a bushfire for one to two years, and after three years will have a “profound effect” in reducing the rate of spread. For as long as 20 years embers and flame height will be reduced.

Jerry Williams said prescribed fire had an effect even in extreme conditions.

A person might say the science of prescribed burning has been developing for many centuries since indigenous people began routinely setting prescribed fires to enhance the habitat for the plants and animals they needed for survival. In 1804 and 1805 Lewis and Clark documented the use of prescribed fire by native Americans (but at least one of them had an unfortunate result). At some point we have to admit that the science has reached a level of maturity.

Abraham Lincoln said:

Things may come to those who wait…but only the things left by those who hustle.

From the DSE’s Fire Ecology web page:

Fire is a natural part of the Australian environment and has been so for millions of years. Natural ignition (lightning) and indigenous burning practices have shaped our ecosystems over tens of thousands of years.

From Bill Gabbert, February 22, 2010:

Prescribed fire, when applied wisely by experienced fire management personnel, is an essential land management tool.

via @FireInfoGirl

Researchers study how prescribed fires affected Black Saturday fires

Research scientist Lachlan McCaw led a team that studied the effects that previous planned or unplanned fires had on the spread of the disastrous Black Saturday fires a year ago in Australia. Unsurprisingly, he concluded that the intensity was reduced and the areas provided anchor points for firefighters, but larger prescribed fires were more effective than small ones.

DUH. To many of us this is intuitive, but documenting this data can help to rebut the uninformed rants of those in Australia that are opposed to prescribed fires.

Here is an excerpt from a report in The Australian:

Dr McCaw said that across the areas burned on Black Saturday, there was no evidence that small-area fuel reduction had curbed the fires, but strong evidence of an impact where planned or unplanned burns had occurred within four years and over broad areas of more than 600ha.

Where the Kilmore fire, burning with great intensity about 3pm on Black Saturday, met a relatively small area of four-year-old growth, it was quickly outflanked.

About 6.30pm, when the fire met a 1600ha area burnt by wildfire in January 2006, it burned with low intensity.

Dr McCaw said the severity of the Beechworth fire on Black Saturday was reduced by burns that had been conducted one year, two years and four years previously, that had also provided “anchor points” for fire fighting.

Asked about the effectiveness of small “mosaic” burns that left areas of unburnt vegetation for biodiversity conservation, Dr McCaw said if the primary objective of planned burning was community protection, “you would have to be pursuing fairly high levels of fuel reduction”.

Radiant heat, embers, and the ignitability of structures

Here are a couple of interesting videos featuring Jack Cohen, a researcher at the Missoula Fire Science Lab. The videos explain radiant heat and how difficult it is for fine fuels and structures to ignite from that alone, and the role of embers in spreading fire and burning structures.

via @FireInfoGirl

John Muir Project: “The myth of ‘catastrophic’ wildfire”

The Director of the John Muir Project, Chad Hanson, has written a paper about wildfire and its relationship to biodiversity and climate change, titled The Myth of ‘Catastrophic’ Wildfire. Here are some of his findings, as reported by New West:

• There is far less fire now in western U.S. forests than there was historically.

• Current fires are burning mostly at low intensities, and fires are not getting more intense, contrary to many assumptions about the effects of climate change. Forested areas in which fire has been excluded for decades by fire suppression are also not burning more intensely.

• Contrary to popular assumptions, high-intensity fire (commonly mislabeled as “catastrophic wildfire”) is a natural and necessary part of western U.S. forest ecosystems, and there is less high-intensity fire now than there was historically, due to fire suppression.

• Patches of high-intensity fire (where most or all trees are killed) support among the highest levels of wildlife diversity of any forest type in the western U.S., and many wildlife species depend upon such habitat. Post-fire logging and ongoing fire suppression policies are threatening these species.

• Conifer forests naturally regenerate vigorously after high-intensity fire.

• Our forests are functioning as carbon sinks (net sequestration) where logging has been reduced or halted, and wildland fire helps maintain high productivity and carbon storage.

• Even large, intense fires consume less than 3% of the biomass in live trees, and carbon emissions from forest fires is only tiny fraction of the amount resulting from fossil fuel consumption (even these emissions are balanced by carbon uptake from forest growth and regeneration).

• “Thinning” operations for lumber or biofuels do not increase carbon storage but, rather, reduce it, and thinning designed to curb fires further threatens imperiled wildlife species that depend upon post-fire habitat.

In addition to being the Director of the John Muir Project, Mr. Hanson is also a researcher at the University of California at Davis and was elected as one of the directors of the Sierra Club in 2000.