Wildfires can occur anywhere when the conditions are right. One of the most horrific wildfires in the history of the United States occurred in October 1871 in Wisconsin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire.” In that fire alone which occurred on the same date as the Great Chicago Fire over 1,500 people may have perished though there is no accurate record of the loss.
Low humidity, winds, dried vegetation (perhaps from extended periods of drought), the type of topography, and warm temperatures can all contribute to the behavior and spread of a wildfire. But what makes a wildfire a slowly creeping natural event, a normal part of many ecosystems, and what causes it to become a raging mega fire? How can firefighters and residents understand what the potential risks are during their wildfire incident? How do conditions change and can these changes cause wildland firefighters to be put at greater risk while they engage in suppression and mitigation efforts?
Researchers are studying how wildfires burn and how weather conditions can contribute to wildfire severity. One new study being carried out by Worcester Polytechnic Institute by professor, Albert Simeoni, who was once himself a firefighter in France. The study is examining how fires burn vegetation in a wind tunnel. This experiment tries to help understand how fires grow and spread in natural environments under different wind conditions. Another study, by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (NFPA’s research affiliate), is Pathways for Building Fire Spread at the Wildland Urban Interface, .This was completed in collaboration with Dr. Michael Gollner and his research team from the University of Maryland, and identifies pathways for fire spread at the wildland urban interface and gaps in information to inform prevention and protection strategies. Yet another Research Foundation study, "A Collection of Geospatial Technological Approaches for Wildland and Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Events", looks at, “key details involving current applications of geospatial technology to address wildland and WUI fire hazards. They provide a summary of core information regarding the features and specific use of different geospatial tools, with a primary focus on Graphic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies.” NOAA is currently providing weather predictors for wildfire severitythat are being used in before and during wildfire response.
Perhaps in the future there will be better wildfire weather warning systems like other severe warning systems available for weather occurrences like tornadoes and hurricanes, which can help residents and firefighters better understand the severity of the fire complex approaching and developing within their community to help them make better suppression and evacuation choices focusing on life safety. Maybe just like a cat 5 hurricane prediction, weather and fire researchers using satellite information and information about vegetation and topography will better be able to model the severity of a potential wildfire event.
Image: courtesy of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).