In recent years, California has experienced massive, destructive wildfires, such as the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed over 18,000 structures. Such “megafires” scorch over 100,000 acres and cause huge losses. Researchers are studying these blazes, both in the lab and in the field, with the hope of using new technology, computer simulations and understanding of how fires spread to battle fires before they become so destructive. This video explores the work of groups led by Michael Gollner of University of Maryland, College Park, and Craig Clements of San José State University.

Learn more: Firenadoes and drifting embers: The secrets of extreme wildfires

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Video Transcript:

Michael Gollner (Fire Protection Engineering Lab, University of Maryland): “This trend: dramatic fires with so many fatalities and home losses, something like 18,000 structures in 2018 from a single fire, in Paradise, the campfire. The scary part is it’s not the only community that’s primed for.”

Craig Clements (Fire Weather Research Lab, San José State University): “The one thing I hope in the future is that firefighting agencies will utilize this new technology that’s been developed by the scientific community, because we’re building new tools, we have new observations and we need to integrate that into fire management.”

Michael Gollner: “Eventually it’ll be happening again, if we don’t do something to break that chain, to make it harder or impossible for the fire to spread in such a destructive manner.”

To do this, researchers are relying on the latest scientific techniques to study fire in the lab and in the field.

At Michael Gollner’s lab, every aspect of a wildfire is simulated and tested.

By understanding the physics of fire, Dr. Gollner and his team hope to be able to predict, prevent and prepare for wildfires.

Michael Gollner: “We’re really focused on understanding the fire itself, and so there’s a lot of ways that we tackle this. One is actually in how fires spread.

“In the United States, it’s very apparent that there actually are more very large destructive wildfires. One term that’s been is “megafires” — fires that are over a hundred thousand acres in size. And these fires have been driving up the trends. There’s multiple reasons for that.

“One is the choices we’ve made in fire management in the United States. We’ve taken fires off the landscape, which means that now the fuel is built up and is going to burn in the worst-possible fire conditions when we can’t control it. We’ve moved to where the fires always used to be, in what we call the wildland-urban interface. And, finally, climate change. So in some areas you see long-term droughts, you see changes in weather. California is a great example. Fire season used to be, you know, about six months; now it’s 365 days a year. One of the largest fires ever was in December [the Thomas Fire], so this just, there’s a new normal.”

In recent years, California has become ground zero in the race to develop new tech to prevent and fight wildland fires.

Craig Clements:So lots of wildfires in California start in the grass. And then they’ll burn into the higher terrain and into the oak and shrub. So how does an ignition become a megaphone is very complex. If you have an ignition and it starts burning, if it’s really windy it’s going to start burning and spreading rapidly, so you’re getting lots of acreage burn quickly. If the fire gets into a canyon, it starts accelerating up that canyon. And if it gets so big by the time the aircraft and the firefighting crews get there, then it has a potential to burn even more.”

Michael Gollner: “Embers are very small particles that fly in wildland fires. We’re simulating them here with small wooden dowels, but in reality it could be pieces of bark, it can be pieces of structures, and they get lofted into the plume. Those are actually responsible for most of the losses in a wildland fire. So we know the wood-shake roofs are very bad — they’re very easy to ignite, and those wood shakes break off and loft into embers and fly miles and miles downstream the stream.”

Dr. Clements and his students from SJSU’s weather lab visit a controlled burn site to test their fire scanning and mapping technology.

Craig Clements: “We’ve got the lidar [light detection and ranging] here — that’s the white box which has a laser scanner. So we’ll be able to scan all the way over to that mountainside. And our goal is to scan vertically through the plume as it starts building up. We’re able to use that to peer into the smoke plume, so we can see where these strong updrafts and downdrafts are, and that’s really critical to understand how the model is generating the heat, how it’s putting it into the atmosphere and propagating the fire.

“And then we also have a weather balloon system, and that’s going to be tricky because filling the balloon with these kinds of winds is really hard. If we understand what the winds are doing aloft and where the smoke layers are — the lidar provides that and weather balloons provide that information — we can relay that information and they can use that to better forecast when it’s going to clear out. And so those are critical information and we can provide that.”

Despite all these advances, much is still unknown about these destructive forces of nature.

Craig Clements: “Fire management agencies should be utilizing the current state of the science and technology.”

Michael Gollner: “I think there’s a lot of room for technology to improve the way that we fight wildland fires and the way that we prepare for wildland fires. We have little hope of stopping a big destructive wildfire once it’s already become a big destructive wildfire. I think that’s the big change — we need to make it so that it’s something that we can actually fight, so that it’s something that we can handle.”