Description: Dr. Tom Fletcher is working with the U.S. Forest Service to understand how sloped environments affect the spread of wildfires.
Start: June 5, 2015
End: September 30, 2016
- Sponsor: U.S. Forest Service
- Principal Investigator: Tom Fletcher
- Website: http://firelab.org/project/firefighter-safety-zones
Last year, there were 63,312 wildfires that spread across the United States, burning over 3.5 million acres of land. Currently, there are over a dozen wildfires burning in the western region of the nation. Wildfires frequently destroy homes, land, and endanger lives. While firefighters work to keep others safe during wildfires, they are also the ones who put themselves in the most danger. In the 1950’s, the U.S. Forest Service implemented the use of firefighter safety zones in order to keep firefighters safe while they fight wildfires. Firefighter safety zones are regions which firefighters identify to be a safe refuge in case a fire they are fighting becomes out of control. These areas are chosen solely to keep firefighters safe during a firefight. Whenever the situation becomes unsafe, firefighters retreat to these areas.
The Rocky Mountain Research Station, located in Missoula, Montana, has been working for almost 20 years to improve the security of firefighter safety zones. The Research Center persistently strives to advance the safety of firefighters. Working with the Research Station, BYU Professor Tom Fletcher is investigating how sloped terrains impact the spread of wildfires. Knowing how wildfires spread over different kinds of terrain is an important tool for firefighters to correctly identify which areas around them are safe and which are not.
Professor Fletcher’s work will utilize a new means of examining wildfire growth. With the help of an undergraduate student, Professor Fletcher will use computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to examine fire spread. CFD is a computer software program that models the flow of gas and liquids in different environments. Users modify the parameters of the situation to simulate fluid movements. Physical information regarding pressure, temperature, and velocity of the fluid can be investigated without actually creating an unknown situation. The researchers will explore the use of CFD to model the behavior of fires on sloped terrains. Using this program, the effects of wildfires can be accurately investigated through simulated surroundings.
The researchers are first planning to conduct small-scale lab experiments based on their computational findings. These tests will show how the computer data can be modeled in an actual situation. After scaled demonstrations, the researchers plan to create designs of full-scale experiments to be performed by the Missoula Fire Research Center, who will further investigate how the intensity and spread of wildfires are affected by slopes. The results from Professor Fletcher’s research will be combined with other aspects of research directed by the Research Center. While BYU has been contributing to research regarding terrain slopes, other institutions have also currently been studying how wind affects the spread of wildfires. The combined efforts of this wildfire research will enable the Research Center to more fully understand wildfire intensity, and ultimately aid firefighters as they crucially identify safety zones in high-threatening situations.