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The Fire Lab: Mapping the mysterious science of fire

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At The Fire Lab in Missoula, Montana, highly-trained researchers conduct controlled tests with wind tunnels, fire-whirl generators, and giant combustion chambers to reverse-engineer fire.

How does fire spread? How do different forest materials fuel it? How can firefighters better understand its behavior in order to control it? Why is the physics of fire so counter-intuitive and mysterious to us?

High-speed camera technology records everything, allowing the Fire Lab team to analyze each detail and hopefully, eventually, answer those questions.

fire lab
The team’s mission: “Improve the safety and effectiveness of fire management by creating and disseminating the basic fire science knowledge, tools, and applications for scientists and managers.” Research forester Mark Finney explains:

“We’re not getting rid of fire by trying to suppress it by removing fire today under moderate conditions; what we’re doing is delaying this inevitable fire for much more extreme conditions that are beyond our control. So, in fact, the great irony hereβ€”it’s been called the fire paradoxβ€”is that the harder we try to remove fire, the worse we make it.

“So many contradictions here, and maybe that’s why fire remains such a mysterious phenomenon.”

This is The Mysterious Science of Fire by Katherine Wells and Sam Price-Waldman at The Atlantic. More conversation starters: Fire prevention and safety tips and using matches as tools.

Related reading from May 2013: Archaeologists Find Earliest Evidence of Humans Cooking With Fire.

And from Yale School of the Environment in 2022: The Fire Paradox: A Threat, But Part of the Solution.

Related watching on TKSST:
β€’Β What’s happening when a match is lit?
β€’ Why do hot things glow?
β€’ Firefighter helmet cam
β€’ Smokey and The Little Boy

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