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Environment | Think Out Loud

The New Science Of Fighting Wildfires

After three deaths, threats to public health,  450,000 acres burned and a $245 million tab, the Oregon fire season is over. But as bad as this year was, there are predictions that fire seasons in the West are only going to get worse.

As Paul Tullis reported in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last weekend, scientists are trying to get ahead of the burns by investigating a seemingly simple question:

How does fire spread?

Current modeling software will often underestimate how far and how fast a wildfire will spread. But in labs with instruments with names like “the death ray,” researchers are studying how everything from a single pine needle to a 100,000 acre forest catches fire.

One important facet of the research is how houses ignite. Researchers are discovering the problem is often not the flames of the fire, but the heat from the embers that can burn in dry brush long after the fire is gone. Tullis advocates that people be more deliberate about where they build houses, and how they maintain them. More and more homes are being built in areas prone to wildfires, but building codes and brush-removal regulations do not always provide for wildfire prevention.

We’ll hear more from Tullis on the science of fire prevention.

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