When we decided to do a segment on the latest research into wildfire safety, there was an obvious place we knew we had to visit. The U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Science Lab in Missoula, Mont., is pioneering many new techniques as well as research programs, all designed to predict fire behavior and hopefully make people who encounter wildfires safer.
One of the current studies under way—how to better create fire safety zones—was of particular interest to us, especially after the deaths of the entire “hotshot” firefighting team in Arizona in 2013.
Bret Butler, the lead researcher on this project, showed us the models they are creating. Currently, firefighters on the front line use an old formula to determine how far they need to be from flames in order to be safe from the smoke and heat. That calculation is essentially at least 4 times the height of the highest flame on scene. The line commander “eyeballs” the area and does the calculation in his or her head. Obviously, the safety of the entire fire line depends on the accuracy of this calculation.
Without exception, every firefighter and scientist who spoke with on this assignment agreed the fire safety zone guidelines need to evolve, which is what Butler’s team is hoping to do. By collecting field data and then building computer models, the goal is to one day create a better formula that factors in key conditions like slopes and winds.
First, Butler’s team must gather a great deal of data from actual wildfires. So after we visited the lab, my team and I spent about a month this summer monitoring U.S. wildfires and waiting for the call to mobilize. With one of the worst droughts on record in the West, there were no shortage of wildfires. We spent several weekends on standby, wondering if we would be traveling to Arizona or New Mexico.
When I mentioned my ongoing assignment to friends and family, they would text or email me information about one of the hundreds of wildfires that burned through the West and Southwest this summer.
If only any wildfire would do. The Fire Science Lab team needed a burn with very specific features. First, the fire had to be burning pretty ferociously, so dry fuel conditions and heavier winds were ideal. Slopes cause fires to burn through areas quicker, and they also need a fast moving blaze, so terrain was important as well. Because the team is hauling fire boxes that are put down in front of the flames and actually burnt through, getting ahead of the fire was another big challenge. Timing was very important, and the team was driving from Montana, or maybe even another wildfire in a different state.
Finally, the team had to be granted access by the Fire Commanders. As non-essential personnel, Butler’s team aren’t immediately saving lives or protecting property, so convincing Command to allow them on scene isn’t always easy. Add to that getting permission for a four member TV camera crew—and the risks and potential liability involved with granting that permission.
In August, we got the call from Butler to head up north and meet his team about 300 miles outside Sacramento. This old lumber region not far from Mount Shasta was under a state of emergency. There were nearly a dozen fires burning from California into Washington state and along the Oregon border. Lightning strikes overnight could ignite multiple brush fires that could build into full blown wildfires if the crews didn’t get to them quickly.
Still, with several hundred firefighters called in, and winds expected to pick up overnight, we were welcomed into the July Complex Post, where Fire Camp was located. Some of the bigger wildfires in the area had begun burning in late July, hence the name. Fire Camp is pretty impressive. Not only is there a full weather station and communication center, it serves as the rest, recovery and replenish area for the exhausted fire crews. Hot showers, hot meals, support, safety and sleep can be found here. But accommodations are hardly luxurious. The area we were set up in was a cow pasture, the evidence of that found everywhere underfoot. Yet for the many of the crews who spend their summers chasing fires across the country, this Post was far from the most rustic they’d experienced.
It was in the moments while talking to the soot covered faces of the teams that we really appreciated why the Fire Team is so dedicated to their mission. These men and women who risk their lives not only putting out fires, but evacuating residents and their livestock or pets, are incredibly tireless and exceptionally brave. They deserve to be as safe as they can possibly be in an inherently unsafe—and unselfish—profession.
As often happens on long research projects, our Fire Science Team ultimately found they couldn’t gather the data they needed from the July Complex series of fires. We left, but they set out for a new potential fire in Oregon, determined and undefeated.