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BYU researchers studying how wildfires burn

Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

PROVO, Utah — Researchers at BYU are lighting plants and shrubs on fire – in a lab – in order to figure out how to predict how wildfires burn and spread.

Chemical engineering professor Thomas Fletcher says they are looking at the microscopic details.

“When a flame starts, it sucks in air from both sides. But if it is near a slope, the air can’t suck in on one side. So it tends to lean in toward the slope, and that affects firefighter safety,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher says humidity, wind and temperature are all variables that can change how wildfires burn.

“We are studying the science, of what are the gases that come off these leaves when you heat them up, as a first step to understanding the flames,” he added.

Researchers subjected 14 different kinds of plants and shrubs to fire. In addition to the gases that escape, they watch for the chemicals that are produced.

“We look at the flames with video, do some image analysis, and try to understand what happens when flames get close together,” he said.

The Department of Defense is funding the research, because of burns they want to do in the Southeastern US. But researchers hope it will also help Utah firefighters fighting both natural and manmade fires on windy slopes and hillsides. They hope by looking at the small scale of fires, they can understand what happens on a large scale.