During the past 15 years working at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) on wildfire safety and the Firewise USA™ Recognition Program, I have been fortunate to encounter truly influential people across a variety of disciplines who are making a difference in our world’s understanding of wildfire and how to protect people and property. As a non-scientist, I have found myself periodically overwhelmed by the wildfire research coming out of so many different disciplines. In NFPA’s work on wildfire, we’re focused on protecting lives and property. While the forestry and ecology and soil science is interesting, what I always want to know more about is how to more effectively protect people and homes from wildfire. How do homes and communities ignite and burn, and how do we intervene to reduce losses?
The building- and community-specific physical fire science research has been somewhat harder to find, and concentrated with just a few people in just a few places. Those include the work of Jack Cohen with the US Forest Service Fire Research Lab in Missoula, Alexander Maranghides and Samuel Manzello at NIST, and Stephen Quarles now at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS).
Although many of my co-workers at NFPA are engineers, especially fire protection engineers (FPEs), few in the traditional NFPA circles were working on wildfire (much less interested in it as part of their work or research). I enjoyed learning more about other aspects of fire science and engineering from them, including periodic lectures held by the New England Chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, where many of them are members and even officers.
In 2011, the chapter hosted a lecture about wildfire research with a name that was new to me: Albert Simeoni, then (and now) at Worcester Polytechnical Institute (WPI). A few years later, Daniel Gorham, a University of Maryland student pursuing his Master’s degree in fire protection engineering, came to work at NFPA. Our codes/engineering departments are generally loaded up with student interns from Maryland or WPI, two of the few U.S. universities with specific FPE degree programs. I was surprised and delighted to meet a young engineer who knew about the Missoula Fire Lab!
Through Dan, I met Michael Gollner, who now (like Albert) participates on NFPA technical committees and serves on the IAWF Board of Directors. I served on a technical panel for a Fire Protection Research Foundation-sponsored study, Pathways for Building Fire Spread at the Wildland Urban Interface, which Michael and three of his students developed. And in more recent years, a very familiar name among fire protection engineers and in the halls of NFPA started to pop up when wildfire research was discussed: Fred Mowrer, retired from the University of Maryland, who has started an FPE degree program at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) at San Luis Obispo.
I’ve begun to observe what I hope is a trend toward more physical fire scientists and engineers interested in and contributing to solutions to wildfire safety problems and explorations of the unknowns that we still face about wildfire behavior and spread. Curious to understand more about what inspired these individuals to pursue wildfire research and to share their perspective with others, I spoke with them about their chosen fields, their specific work, and their thoughts on how their disciplines can contribute to deeper understanding and effective solutions to wildfire disasters.
Here’s the results of what I learned.
How did you get involved in wildfire research?
Michael: I had a degree in mechanical engineering and interned in fire protection engineering in San Diego (my hometown). I was involved in defensible space measurement. I grew up with wildfires but the internship was my first exposure to the science of wildfires. Part of my degree focus was fundamental combustion science and fluid mechanics. When I came to the University of Maryland to teach, I had the opportunity to do more in wildfire. I noticed that wildfire analyses at that time (mid-2000s) were behind the times compared to other kinds of fire analysis.
Dan: Well, I was Michael’s student! I grew up fighting fires in Maryland and got some wildland firefighting experience. It wasn’t until I entered the fire protection engineering degree program at Maryland that I really thought about working on wildfire from the academic side. Most other FPE students were looking at fires in structures, and at that stage of my life I had a real need and desire to be different. By my senior year, I finally got to meet Michael Gollner, and had the opportunity to work with him on research and experiments at the Fire Research Lab in Missoula, Montana.
Albert: I always wanted to be a firefighter as a young kid. Growing up on an island (Corsica) and going to college on the mainland meant my studies got in the way (of volunteering). I finally became a volunteer and learned a lot from the fire service people, who liked to tease me about how I should know everything from college. When I had the opportunity to pursue my Ph.D., I had two great professors, one in quantum mechanics, and the other who was the university president who had started to explore applying his learnings in physics to wildland fires.
Fred: I moved to California in 1979, doing consulting work and then going to graduate school at UC Berkley. I remembered Rex Wilson’s famous paper on “The Diablo Winds” (Rex was an engineer at NFPA in the 1960s), and how he said the problem in California was about wood shake roofs. I couldn’t understand why, of all places, California hadn’t banned them. Then I realized there were politics involved! I was in the area during the 1991 Oakland Hills fire and knew someone whose fairly new home with a Class C roof and not much surrounding vegetation survived that fire. I learned there had been a neighbor who stayed behind and put out hotspots. While I didn’t work directly in wildfire for years, I kept in touch with my advisor at Berkley and followed the process of materials testing that helped support tenets of Chapter 7A of the California Building Code (note on Chapter 7A).
Tell me more about your perspective and the problems you want to solve:
Fred Mowrer describes the importance of engineering approaches as exposure versus response. Traditionally the US Forest Service and the public land management agencies have done the research and modeling on wildfire exposure from the natural environment. Fire scientists and engineers traditionally look at how building materials respond to a fire, and know how to create and apply fire test standards. “I think what’s emerging (from fire science research) is more focus on modeling wildfire, predicting how a fire is going to advance, and what kind of conditions the fire is going to produce. This has been traditionally done using empirical approaches, but fire scientists are using a physics-based approach.” He noted work being done by IBHS, NIST and others on fire testing and examining heat flux from wildfire exposures.
“The history of wildland fire has a lot of engineering,” says Michael Gollner. He cites the development of a mathematical model for prediction of fire spread in wildland fuels by Richard Rothermel with the US Forest Service in the 1960s, mentions Charlie Van Wagner, “a pioneer of wildland fire science in Canada,” and references George Byram’s seminal work in the field. In Michael’s view, after the 1970s, there was a gap in this kind of research – which he hopes he is starting to fill along with other researchers, in the area of combustion science. “There are a lot of areas with promise exploring how fire spreads. It sounds simple, but everything in wildfire is based on that. We just don’t understand how it works, after all these years. There was an empirical model based on observation, and they (earlier researchers) just stopped digging. We want to add that precision and look at examples outside the norm. We can’t do that without a model that accommodates complexity.” Michael’s work points consistently to the need for cross-discipline collaboration and a holistic view of the WUI fire problem.
Albert Simeoni’s statement on his WPI profile page provides a great summary:
Even today, despite progress in modeling and experimentation, the fundamental mechanisms driving the spreading of forest fires are not well understood. This area of research is especially challenging and interesting, since it has the potential to greatly impact on the safety of people, goods, and the environment. My research is geared squarely on developing more complete understanding, modeling, simulation, and experiments of wildfires, with special consideration of combustion and heat, and mass transfers. The elemental aspects of my research focus on understanding the basic phenomena that drive fire behavior. The applied aspects focus on the development of scientific tools useful for firefighting and land management. My students and I develop experimental and analytical techniques to more fully understand fire dynamics and thus better forecast fire behavior under diverse conditions.
In talking with Albert, he adds, “In a changing environment, the historical approach is decreasing in value. Knowing how this phenomenon of wildfire works can help us adjust our approach.”
Dan Gorham’s role with the Fire Protection Research Foundation is a bit different, as he is not actively engaged on research projects of his own. Dan reflected that he had just started at NFPA when the Pathways for Building Fire Spread project started up with his former professor and fellow students and how interesting it was to see both sides of the research process. “Most recently, the human behavior side of the WUI problem has captured my interest,” says Dan, “not just the fire physics and combustion. A current project examining models for wildfire evacuation is interesting to me because it combines fire and traffic modeling with the human side of it. The results of this work could be used in pre-planning and potentially become an operational tool to be used during an incident. This really resonates with me and reminds me of what I learned as an undergrad about the human element in building evacuation.”
What do you want the rest of the wildfire and WUI community to know about your work or the value of fire protection engineering in this field?
“Fire protection engineers know how to do systems-level problem solving,” says Dan Gorham. “Engineers can participate in the problem at the risk level and not just the hazard level. We need to see engineering as part of the solution.”
Michael Gollner expands on this idea. “People should know that FPEs, while fairly involved on the research end, also have a role to play in collaboration with other experts, because we are experienced in performance-based design, modeling and risk that could be brought to bear on the WUI problem. If I had a wish, it would be that we get together to work on best practices for WUI.”
“What FPEs can add to the conversation is a view of wildfire as a coupled phenomenon,” says Albert Simeoni. “We can help with a broader understanding of fire dynamics. The approach that FPEs bring is that it is not just a problem of fuel. Current fuel models do not take structures into account; therefore current models don’t really help us solve the wildland/urban fire problem. There is a gap: fuel conditions change fire behavior over very small spaces; we’re also not looking at the geometry of fuels.”
Even with what I’m observing as growth in interest among fire scientists and engineers in the WUI problem, in my opinion the world needs more of you. Why aren’t there more FPEs doing wildfire work? How do you propose we get more people interested?
As leaders of FPE degree programs in their respective universities, Michael, Albert and Fred all see student interest in various aspects of wildfire research and application. Michael describes the appeal to students who see that wildfire is a different way to apply their skills and potentially contribute to solving a challenging problem that doesn’t already have standard solutions. Albert is equally enthusiastic about introducing students to the field, but expresses concern about the lack of funding for this type of research in universities. It’s been an ongoing concern, but now the recent federal budget proposal would slash funding for the Joint Fire Sciences Program.
Fred Mowrer adds, “Demand for that knowledge in terms of a job opportunity is what would drive more students to get into this field.” He knows students who have personal experience of wildfire that are very interested in researching it, but there is a scarcity of opportunity to work on it once in the professional world.
As a recent product of a university fire protection engineering focus with a strong emphasis on wildfire, Dan Gorham shares his counterparts’ enthusiasm and concern, but points out that recent grads he knows from Michael’s program at Maryland are starting to change the picture of wildfire and engineering. “There’s Erica Kuligowski at NIST, Sarah Caton at Jensen Hughes – she was a co-author on the Pathways project – and Maria Theodori now with Arup in New York, another young practicing engineer who understands the traditional fire protection engineering context but adds wildfire knowledge to the mix.”
Dan also noted that changes at the federal level are not always budget cuts and can signal emerging issues to both the public and private sectors. He referenced E.O. 13728, the 2016 presidential Executive Order on Wildland-Urban Interface Federal Risk Mitigation. This order states that for new federal buildings, and alterations to existing federal buildings greater than 5,000 square feet, within the WUI and at moderate or greater risk to wildfire, federal agencies should apply the wildfire-resistant design provisions outlined in the current edition of the International Wildland Urban Interface Code or an equivalent, nationally recognized code. Dan thinks this could spur private engineering firms to up their game with regard to staff who understand wildfire and structure protection.
At the end of our conversation, Dan added, “You and others have been waving the advocacy flag for years and warning that wildfire disasters will happen if we don’t do something. Well, we just saw the disasters this year, so I think this is when we should be saying to students and people early in their career, you can get involved, you can solve this. It’s unfortunate that it seems like something bad has to happen to get people’s attention, but maybe this will help future researchers and scientists get more involved.”
Profiles of the Fire Scientists Interviewed
Michael Gollner, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering.
- Education: Mechanical Engineering B.S, M.S., and Ph.D.
- Key research/teaching areas: wildland and wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires; fire dynamics; combustion; environmental sustainability
Pathways for Building Fire Spread at the Wildland Urban Interface, Fire Protection Research Foundation report, 2017
Co-Principal Invesigator on WiFire collaborative – https://wifire.ucsd.edu/ . WIFIRE is an integrated system for wildfire analysis, with specific regard to changing urban dynamics and climate. The system integrates networked observations such as heterogeneous satellite data and real-time remote sensor data, with computational techniques in signal processing, visualization, modeling, and data assimilation to provide a scalable method to monitor such phenomena as weather patterns that can help predict a wildfire’s rate of spread. The products of WIFIRE will be initially disseminated to project collaborators (SDG&E, CAL FIRE, USFS) covering academic, private, and government laboratories while generating value to emergency officials, and consequently to the general public.
Albert Simeoni, Ph.D., Department Head of Fire Protection Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass.
- Education: Masters and PhD in Mechanical Engineering
- Key research/teaching areas: wildland fires (fire spread modeling and experiments, fire impact assessment, looking at combustion, heat transfer, and fluid mechanics aspects of the problem) and fire dynamics of other types of fires.
A preliminary study of wildland fire pattern indicator reliability following an experimental fire, US Forest Service Northern Research Station, 2017
Investigation of firebrand generation from an experimental fire: Development of a reliable data collection methodology, US Forest Service Northern Research Station, 2017
- Education: BS and MS in Fire Protection Engineering
Current projects through the Fire Protection Research Foundation:
- e-Murray: Modeling Requirements for an Open‐Access Multi‐Physics Approach to Planning of Urban Evacuations Caused by Wildfire Disasters
- Fire Ember Production from Wildland and Structural Fuels
- Advanced Fire Blocking Materials for Enhanced Performance in Wildland Fire Shelters
Fred Mowrer, Ph.D., Director of Fire Protection Engineering, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo
- Education: Ph.D., Fire Protection Engineering and Combustion Science
- Key research/teaching areas: fire protection, combustion science, fire science applications, contribution and response of products and materials to fire, mathematical fire modeling, building fire safety analysis and design, analytical fire reconstruction.
Recent papers/projects: 2015 John L. Bryan Mentor Award from SFPE (Society of Fire Protection Engineers) for exceptional commitment to education. Student project underway on post-fire investigation of communities impacted by the 2016 Chimney Fire at Lake Nacimiento, California.