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Visiting the lab that's trying to understand fire

Visiting the lab that's trying to understand fire


Montana's Fire Lab simulates wildfires in special chambers

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The cultivation of fire elevated humans as a species by allowing us to cook food, stay warm, and forge tools. But although humanity's use of fire has been widespread for more than 125,000 years, we still don't truly understand it. In the Rocky mountains, one center is trying to demystify the destructive force. The Fire Lab in Missoula, Montana, was built in 1960 for the purposes of understanding fire in all of its forms. The Atlantic's short documentary about the lab, Fire, in Slow Motion, shows how its staff use specially designed apparatus such as wind tunnels and fire-whirl generators to simulate forest and wildfires, before analyzing the results.

Researchers at the Fire Lab seem to have a satisfying job. Staff are called into a room to watch as hundreds of laser-cut cardboard pieces are set ablaze in a combustion chamber, and Sara McAllister, who works as a mechanical engineer testing the biomass that fuels forest fires, jokes her job is just "to light things on fire all day." But the importance of the Fire Lab's work is underscored by the damage that the wildfires — such as those that recently claimed lives and $60 million of property in California — can still inflict on society.

The lab was founded in 1960 to research fire in all of its forms

Mark Finney, research forester at the lab, says that technological advances have brought us closer than ever to understanding fire. Pointing to the kind of data visualization options he and his colleagues at the Fire Lab have, Finney says "Even ten years ago, we couldn't do the kind of analyses we're doing now." But he also warns against assuming we already understand the destructive force of the element. "With fire," he says, "almost everything is counter-intuitive."