Hot pursuit

As wildfire becomes more devastating every year, local researchers race to unlock its mysteries



A little after 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, helicopters and local fire departments responded to a small blaze spotted on the mountainside overlooking Hamilton, near Roaring Lion Road. The narrow asphalt route winds through a quiet, rural neighborhood where ranch-style homes are nestled among stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

Within a matter of minutes, the Roaring Lion Fire blew from a single spark—the cause of which is yet to be determined—to an acre-sized blaze. The burning area doubled, then doubled again, even while a helicopter dumped water in hopes of slowing its progress. Within a few hours, the flames shot through the canyon, growing to 3,500 acres by day's end. The Ravalli County Sheriff's Department evacuated residents and shut down part of U.S. Route 12, while the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter and donations poured in from throughout the area.

Roaring Lion is still burning at more than 8,200 acres as of press time, and already the blaze has torched 16 homes. One man died of a heart attack during the evacuation. In just one week, the firefighting costs top $5 million.

The Roaring Lion Fire marks a new norm in the firefighting world: massive infernos ripping through dense forestland, encroaching on the urban interface. Wildfire is bigger and more expensive to fight year by year. The U.S. Forest Service spent a record $2.6 billion on fire in 2015, more than half of its budget. Acreage burned each year has doubled since 1980.

  • cover photo by Joe Weston

While firefighting agencies battle Roaring Lion and other wildfires throughout Montana this summer, often risking their lives in extreme and erratic conditions, a different but equally crucial type of work happens in a much different environment. Far from the fire line, a small group of scientists work in relative anonymity on the painstaking process of trying to more fully comprehend fire's behavior.

"It's amazing because fire has been around for millennia, right? That was how we mastered the universe was we conquered fire," says Sara McAllister, who analyzes fire physics at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. "But we don't really understand it."

The Fire Lab's quiet campus out past the Missoula International Airport feels far removed from the drama of wildfire, but the facility is home to some of the most advanced fire research in the world. For more than five decades, the Fire Lab's work has directly shaped how we prepare for and react to something like Roaring Lion. Just in the last few years, the lab's research has upturned everything that experts previously understood about how fire starts and spreads—and the scientists acknowledge there's still plenty more ground to cover. As the threat of wildfire increases and its effects become more devastating every year, their work has never come at a more crucial time.

On a recent afternoon, McAllister and her assistant, Sophie Vernholm, push open the heavy double doors to the pressurized main experiment chamber at the Fire Lab. The pressure change inside the room causes everyone's ears to pop as they enter. The room smells faintly of wood smoke. Overhead, a massive jet-engine-sized exhaust system juts out of the soaring 66-foot-tall ceiling. On the floor, a bucket of ash emanates heat.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

The Fire Lab, part of the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Laboratory, was founded in 1960. The compound sits in a maze of Forest Service buildings on West Broadway. Inside the lab itself, most of the décor and offices still have a vintage collegiate feel, with wood-paneled walls and historic instruments in display cases. The lab's wind tunnels and combustion chambers are equipped with a hodgepodge of gear from throughout the decades, including the main control room's original 1960s metal control panel, with knobs and twists that look straight out of the "Jetsons" cartoon. An old PC monitor that runs DOS sits nearby, with floppy disks piled on the desk.

Despite appearances, the Forest Service lauds the Fire Lab as the most sophisticated wildfire research facility in the world. Researchers here are responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in fire understanding, starting with experiments in the 1960s that led to the National Fire Danger Rating System, which is still used by government agencies today. It's the same rating that's found in countywide fire danger estimates and Smokey Bear signs.


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