I study fire as a natural force that has shaped the landscape over time. Plants and animals have adapted to fire just like they have to rain or snow. To protect people and the commercial value of timber, we've been suppressing fires for nearly a century. But biologically-speaking, removing fire from the ecosystem has been the most radical management choice we could have made.
I look at the basic physics of fire. I'm working on a mathematical simulation of fire behavior to predict how a fire will burn. Next I'll check the model with measurements from real fires. Then the model will help managers decide whether to light burns or choose the safest way to fight wildfires.
Before I can send crews out to light a fire to improve forest health or wildlife habitat, I have to account for many things. Factors include weather, fuels, season, how close we are to private property or a recreation area, which way the smoke will blow, and whether people will see the burn. Plus we have to consider the air pollution laws!
It's my job out on the fire line to predict what the fire will do next. I have to factor in weather, terrain, and the types of materials there are to burn. The new models help a lot, but I also think about fires I've seen before. I'm very concerned about firefighter safety, so I always look at the worst case possible.
The right weather conditions can turn a harmless little smoke into a dangerous firestorm. Computer models and satellite images help me forecast fire weather for managers. But I also have to study the fire's location, including slope and exposure to the sun, to make the most accurate predictions.
When we started parachuting on fires over 50 years ago, our mission was to put them out fast. Now we see how much fuel there is in the forest, just waiting to burn. That makes my job harder. Since fires can benefit the forest and wildlife, I sometimes just observe them to keep them from getting out of hand.
Well, I'm not just one person -- I'm all of us. I realize we used to have a lot of fires here. But I'm not so sure I want the woods to be all burned up. What about the dead trees and animals? I want my investment in my vacation home protected. To boot, my asthma really acts up with the smoke.