Missoula Fire Lab celebrates golden anniversary by looking toward potential advances in fire science and research. Excerpted from Wildfire Magazine.
From the parking lot, the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, could pass for a school, except that one end has a 73-foot-high block of reinforced concrete topped by what looks like a giant golf ball. The block is a combustion chamber for experimental burning, and the ball is part of a satellite station that receives data used to map North American wildfires, a function unheard of when the Fire Lab was established in 1960.
The world’s largest wildland fire research laboratory turns 50 this month. Half a century of work at the Fire Lab — home of the Fire, Fuel and Smoke Science Program operated by the USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station — has strengthened the safety and effectiveness of fire management worldwide. When the anniversary is celebrated with a public rededication ceremony and related activities in Missoula on Sept. 18, it will be with recognition for accomplishments of the past and a sense of anticipation for still more advances from ongoing work.
Research chemists Shawn Urbanski and Emily Lincoln prepare a fire-atmosphere sampling system to measure gas and particulate emissions from a prescribed fire in a pine forest outside of San Juanita, Chihuahua, Mexico. The instrumentation is deployed within the burn unit to sample smoke emissions during the fire.
Sept. 12, 1960, brought the original dedication of what was then the Northern Forest Fire Laboratory. When it opened, complete with two wind tunnels and a state-of-the-art combustion chamber, the singular research goal was to stop all wildfires to the extent possible with the equipment of the day, availability of personnel and provisions for crew safety. Today, the scope is broader and the focus more complex. Understanding fire behavior and providing for the safety of firefighters and the public still are critical to its mission, but the lab also emphasizes fuels treatments, fire ecology, fire chemistry and fire’s dynamic relationship with global change. The sweep of today’s lab is further evident in the diversity of the landscapes covered by researchers’ work. It influences fire management decisions and ecosystem health in environments as different from each other as wilderness areas and the wildland-urban interface.
While the scope has broadened, the dedication of Fire Lab scientists, engineers, mathematicians and others has been constant. Their work, often in collaboration with researchers near and far, is evident globally in myriad ways — benefitting natural resources, fire managers, crews and landowners. Fire retardant, infrared detection systems and the National Fire Danger Rating System are just a few of the tools that trace their origins to Fire Lab research conducted years ago. The Incident Response Pocket Guide that every firefighter is told to carry includes guidelines for creating, recognizing and using safety zones — all based on research carried out at the Missoula facility.
To early generations of scientists, the contemporary lab’s computer-intensive research that fire professionals know by monikers such as FSPro, FARSITE and BehavePlus, would have been unfathomable. Improving the safety and effectiveness of fire management remains the core mission at the lab. If its researchers seem proud of what they do, well, they are. “We get excited about our work,” says Dr. Mark Finney, research forester. “We think we have an exciting story to tell.”
They continue in the great tradition begun almost 90 years ago by Forest Service forester and fire science pioneer Harry Gisborne, says Dr. Scott Stephens, associate professor of fire sciences at the University of California at Berkeley. “The Missoula lab has been a world leader in fire research, including the broad areas of fire behavior and fire effects,” says Stephens, one of hundreds of scientists who have been part of its synergy over the years. They include a Fulbright scholar from Russia who says her year at the lab exposed her to “the heart of U.S. fire science” and a Nobel laureate, Dr. Wei Min Hao, who is one of 12 staff scientists at the lab. Hao, who studies fires’ atmospheric pollutants and greenhouse gases, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Scientists from all over the world go to the lab to learn, share their knowledge and explore. “As a relatively young fire ecologist in the 1970s and 1980s, I was inspired by the methods of research at Missoula, the findings of the research or the researchers themselves,” says Dr. Malcolm Gill, an Australian scientist and visiting fellow at The Australian National University who has worked for more than 35 years on matters related to bushfires.
A STORIED HISTORY
When President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Forest Service in 1905, a primary goal was providing complete fire protection for the nation’s forests. Forests protected watersheds, provided grass for grazing and wood for development of the United States. The Forest Service’s first chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, wrote that the “best way for the government to promote each of these three great uses is to protect the forest reserves from fire.”
Successor Henry S. Graves continued that philosophy and established the Forest Service Branch of Research in 1916, six years after fires burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, killing more than 80 firefighters and commanding a Forest Service outlay of about $1 million for firefighting, a huge sum in that day. New experiment stations ensued to support fire research, and as early as the 1930s, fire scientist Gisborne was touting the need for an environmentally controlled wind tunnel and combustion chamber. But before the lab could be built, he died of a heart attack while hiking the steep terrain of the Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 firefighters in 1949 as they toiled in the gulch 20 miles north of Helena, Montanta. The Mann Gulch tragedy redoubled the Forest Service’s emphasis on understanding fire behavior to meet the goal of stopping fires safely.
More to come…