– Okay, I’m ready. I’m locked into the fire wind tunnel. This is crazy. – Fire is something that human
beings have been experiencing for our entire existence,
and it’s been estimated that people have been using fire for 400,000 years, 500,000 years, but that doesn’t actually
mean we understand it. And if you think about that entire span of human history where we’ve
used fire successfully, and now, only recently
in that entire timeframe, we’ve thought, well, it’s
necessary to try to remove it. – This is the Fire Sciences
Lab in Missoula, Montana. Researchers at the lab have
spent the past five decades studying fire and developing new models for fire behavior and warning systems. There’s so many variables
that influence how fire acts. In the lab, scientists are able to strip those variables down to
examine them one at a time, whether it’s wind speed, slope, airflow, or anything else that influences flames. That allows them to study
fire in intimate detail. – So I’m gonna spray a
little line of alcohol here just to get us a good ignition, okay? – Right. – All right, ready? – Ready (whooshing) Whoa. – As smart as most human beings are, we’re still not smart
enough to understand fire without playing with it, and you have to actually have hands-on
experience with fire in order to discover how it works. – Right, I feel like I’m
instinctively already stepping back from this, but I’m gonna trust you here. (clicking) Wow. (electronic music) Wow. – And so the cool thing about this is that the frequency of this
puffing is only related to the diameter of the pan. Here this is about twice per second, but big forest fires, really big ones, they will puff with an
interval of about 30 seconds. – Really?
– Even longer, yeah. The bigger the fire, the slower it puffs. (electronic music) This laboratory here in Missoula, Montana, it’s here precisely because of the history of fire here in the
Northern Rockies since 1910. – In the world of
firefighting, 1910 is a year that lives in infamy. That summer, a monstrous
wildfire dubbed the Big Burn charred three million acres of land on the Montana-Idaho border. The 1910 Big Burn changed
how Americans view fire. Fire became a scourge and something to be beaten back. It ultimately led to a
Forest Service policy called the 10:00 a.m. rule. It called for a fire to be
put out by 10:00 a.m. the day after it was spotted. But the policy had
unintended consequences. – Our intuition is not
just a little wrong. It’s not like 10% wrong. It’s exactly wrong. – That intuition to put
fires out allowed fuel to build up in the forests, priming them for explosive fires. One of those happened in 1949 when the Mann Gulch Fire
blew up to 3,000 acres, the equivalent of nearly
4,000 football fields in just 10 minutes. It killed 13 firefighters
and sparked the realization that we might not know
what we’re up against when it comes to fire. That led to the creation of the fire lab, which in turn created
radical shifts in policy, including one to let fires burn. (relaxing music) – Fighting it harder
actually makes it worse, what is called the fire paradox, where the harder you try to remove fire, the worst it gets when it does happen, and it’s because we’re accumulating fuel across the landscape that
otherwise would be removed by combustion, right? We’re saving it for the
worst-case conditions, and I would say that a lot of what we need to do in the future is learn better how to accomplish the other
aspects of fire management. Allowing fires to burn, working with fire as a tool on the landscape,
and better assessing risks to different places. – We’re gonna go in and just
walk briskly by the burner, so we get upwind of it. – Okay, we won’t be up
– And then we can kinda hang out, and talk, and. – Okay. (electronic music) You said there is a little bit of wind in here right now. – Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it, but there is.
– No, but there’s a little, there’s just a nice gentle breeze. – Yeah. The flames are very low-density, so it doesn’t take much
to push them around. – So this, in particular, is used to look at what effect the size of the fire has on the burning behavior. Really, really wide fires tend to have really, really wide plumes of smoke above it. And mimic in the lab by
using a simple chimney. Air can’t come in above the fire, so all of the air that comes
in to replace all the smoke that’s rushing up has to
come in down on the ground. (electronic music) – You get some air, a blob of air that’s slowly spinning over a large area. If you can somehow concentrate that into a smaller area,
it has to spin faster to contain the same amount of energy. – Right. – The same thing happens with
a figure skater ice skating. – Right.
– You know, they have their arms out or in, and they can control their spin rate.
– Yeah. – So once it gets going, they can last for a long time. – Yeah. – In the field we’ve seen over
an hour these things last. It’s possible. – What’s it like, talking with, like, firefighters that have dealt
with these in the field? How are you building those relationships and those connections? – I was a firefighter when I started. When I was 18 years old
I worked on a fire crew for the Forest Service, and I’ve continued to go out as a firefighter, and so that, combined with
the interactions we have through training and
stuff, I think really helps us generate tools and
knowledge that can help them out in the real world. – The researchers don’t
just light things on fire in the lab. In the field they examine
real-world fire situations to test their models and design new ones. The Lolo Peak Fire burned in 2017, roughly 20 miles from the lab’s doorstep. – Here we are. We’re looking at the Lolo Peak Fire. Yeah, it started in early July and then essentially a very small fire when it was detected, but
in a really remote area that’s actually part of the wilderness, so the decision-makers
here have a hard choice at that point, right? They can choose to send firefighters in to a place that could be extremely unsafe, and essentially a firefighter
could die just trying to put the fire out small. Or they can take a bigger approach, and they can say we can use this fire as a way to basically restore fire to a landscape that needs it. We know because it hasn’t burned for well over 100 years. But to do that, we’re
trading one risk for another. – Millions of Americans already live in or near forests across the West. As the climate changes, the potential for explosive large fires
is only likely to grow. That will change our
relationship with the landscape, and it only makes the work that Mark and his crew at the fire
lab are doing more vital. – Humans have contributed a great deal to the wildfire disasters that we see now, and that also means that humans can undo that kind of contribution
to this disaster. We can make it actually safer. We can mitigate a lot of this. Fire disasters don’t have to happen. Fires have to happen, but fire disasters don’t have to happen. (electronic music)