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New fire research from BYU allowing quick predictions of wildfire movement, growth

Posted at 5:30 PM, Sep 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-04 19:30:23-04

PROVO, Utah – New research from Brigham Young University is creating faster, better models to predict wildfire movement and growth based on foliage in the area.

Following a very wet, growth-promoting spring, Utah has seen a late start to the wildfire season. But as recent weeks have shown, fire season is far from over.

In a new study, sponsored by the Department of Defense, researchers at BYU’s Fire Research Lab were able to conduct an experiment to learn more detail on how fires initiate and burn through wildland fuels.

“We’re trying to understand and take some of the unpredictability out of fire by doing experiments in well-controlled environments,” said Fire Expert, Thomas H. Fletcher, a BYU professor of chemical engineering.

The research looked specifically into the role chemistry plays in how quickly a fire burns through various fuels. Meaning, the type of plant found near a fire may help to predict how it will burn and how quickly it could jump to another plant species.

“There’s some fairly good models already for how dried grass burns, but nobody knows how these shrubs burn, that’s when the fire gets unpredictable,” Fletcher said. “I think what’s hard to monitor with the shrub is the geometry, how it grows from a few inches to a six or an eight-foot flame. How does that happen? We don’t know.”

Using 14 different shrub species, researchers heated each plant type to 800 degrees Celsius and categorized them based on which plants burned the fastest, the chemicals each contained, and the chemicals produced by them while burning.

“When something burns, it first gives off gases and they are the things that really burn when you see a flame like that,” Fletcher said.

They then further the experiment by using small ceramic felt pads, soaked in each given chemical, to simulate the different plant species being burned in different configurations.

“We look for patterns in the flames, whether they merge, whether they don’t merge, how the flames are behaving, how they interact with each other,” said Seth Tollefsen, a BYU chemical engineering student.

The experiment, in turn, allowing them to quickly predict a fire’s movement and growth based on the types of plants in the area.

“Very detailed models take up to two weeks to run, by that time the fire has moved,” Fletcher said. “We’re trying to do an intermediate scale model that runs quick enough that it can be useful for say, a fire manager that says, ‘Where is this fire going to be in four hours?’”

The small-scale model, hopefully, providing insight to a large-scale problem.

“We try to do the very best we can to save lives and save homes,” Fletcher said.

Researchers said, while the model can’t prevent a wildfire, it could prevent an existing one from turning into something much bigger.

Details from the experiment have been published in two separate studies in the Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis.