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Turning Up the Heat on Wildfires

Two Fire Protection Engineering Projects Aim to Make it Hard on Flames That Threaten Communities

By Chris Carroll


Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A store burns as the Camp fire tears through Paradise, Calif., in November 2018. UMD researchers are studying ways to predict fires that enter residential areas.

Wildfires that killed three people in Southern California last week, along with widespread intentional electrical blackouts meant to stop power lines from sparking blazes in the northern part of the state, highlighted the danger that two recent grants in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering will aim to snuff out.    

The first, a $1.3 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), will support a project to enable modeling of how wildfires cross the “wildland-urban interface” and move into—and sometimes devastate—communities. A second, $550,000 grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technologies’ Disaster Resilience Program, will zero in on how flying embers ignite different structural elements and suggest ways to protect homes against fire.

Together, the projects should provide both a wide view and a close-up perspective on an environmental and public safety issue that has grown increasingly acute as more housing is built in areas vulnerable to wildfires; global warming seems to be increasing the risk as well.

“These embers are flying and igniting communities,” says Associate Professor Michael Gollner, who’s leading both projects. “We need to do a better job of prevention, and that requires us to connect the fire conditions and an understanding of how wildfires spread to the question of, specifically, how are our homes burning down?”

Gollner is conducting the NSF-funded study in conjunction with Professor Arnaud Trouvé in fire protection engineering, Associate Professor Kayo Ide in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and Associate Research Professor Evan Ellicott in geographical sciences.

The goal, Gollner said, is to develop predictive ability for wildfires, allowing researchers and public safety officials both to gauge a community’s risk level under various conditions, and if necessary, recommend when to evacuate. The study will attempt to model how embers, or firebrands, ignite single structures, which can then lead to a domino effect in a community.

“The current models stop once the fire gets near people and communities, and that’s a huge liability,” he said.

The NIST-funded research is in conjunction with fire protection engineering Associate Professor Stanislav Stoliarov, an expert in the flammability of various structural materials. It will look at things like roofing, deck materials and others to gauge structures’ vulnerability.

“Our goal is to make it really difficult for the fire to spread,” Gollner said. “Is it enough that we make small changes to materials, and are there other cheap changes we can make that will help make our homes safer?”



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