MISSOULA – In mid-April at the University of Montana Bandy Ranch in neighboring Powell County, the snow was still visible in the surrounding garnet mountains, geese honked overhead, and Cottonwood Creek began to ripple.
But that day there would be a better sound of the season.
Tree sap, bags of water and air pop, crackle and burn with heat, and the swaying of Pulaski in hard ground as bright orange flames shoot up conifers against the background of radio interference and signal tones.
“The first rule of fire is that it depends on batteries,” said LLoyd Queen, UM professor and director of UM’s FireCenter. “Everything runs on batteries – headlights, radios, weather stations.”
Mandatory fires consist of intentionally burned land to reduce the risk of forest fires and to speed up the rejuvenation of the plants. It was the first time the university held a cross-border regulatory fire that burned both UM property and adjacent land administered by other authorities.
Given the larger and more frightening forest fires around the world, researchers and fire managers working together to prevent and manage them represent a new trend in fire science, Queen said.
The day was also a hot and heavy training experience for UM students who were the focus and focused on the burn.
“Incineration has two goals – one is ecological, one is educational,” said Queen. “The first is to restore the landscape, remove debris, and the second is to provide an educational experience for students and partners in the incineration.”
Queen was one of several Fire Center staff and UM professors at WA Franke College of Forestry and Conservation who worked with fire scientists from the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, a research institute of the US Forest Service, and staff from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks the cremation, the planning of which took about two years. UM’s Bandy Ranch is a functioning cattle ranch that doubles as an exploration extension to a classroom.
“This is a complicated mandatory incineration given the involvement of our students and the combination of jurisdictions and research activities,” said Carl Seielstad, program manager and associate professor of UM fires and fuels. “We have students, university properties that are part of the Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station, the Forest Service, and Montana FWP, all of whom are deeply and closely involved.”
Seielstad, who wrote the cremation plan and secured the necessary permissions for the fire, acted as the incident commander or cremation boss of the day – or as the main person responsible if something went wrong.
“From a fire management perspective, we are successful if we are carried out safely, the incineration does not get out of control and the treatment meets the objectives of the incineration plan,” said Seielstad.
The daily fee included lighting approximately 30 acres of native grassland and beetle-killed pine trees, in equal parts, of the Bandy Ranch, Forest Service research lots, and the Montana FWP play area adjacent to the ranch with a drip torch.
Fire management also included a mix of 12 UM undergraduate and graduate students who are either members of the UM Fire Club, majoring in forestry, or taking a minor in fire science and management. One of the group leaders was a doctoral student from UM’s IT department, who studies fire behavior models when no fire is being fought.
The majority of the students have summer jobs as firefighters in the wilderness, and many were there that day to obtain a certificate of mandatory incineration experience for their red cards. These documents issued by the agency confirm that an individual has the training, experience and aptitude to perform duties as a firefighter in the wild.
“It’s great fun and a really great opportunity to be out here and have this experience, especially before many of us fight fires this summer,” said Mason Banks, president of the UM Fire Club and driver of the Gator . An all-purpose SUV that day.
With both Missoula and UM serving as the national hub of forest fire knowledge, the incineration also served as an opportunity for a variety of research on inter-agent and university research objectives with important implications for forest fire prediction, response and management at the national level.
Some of these projects included studying changes in fuel structure with fire behavior, capturing 3D images for fire prediction models, better understanding how fire kills trees instantly, and long-term documentation of the interaction of energy and fuels for informatics models.
Russell Parsons, Research Ecologist at Forest Service, was in the process of taking pictures with ground-based remote cameras to document the behavior of the fire. He added aerial images captured by drone-based sensors flown by UM scientists.
“With the drone, we can see exactly what the fire is doing up to the second,” said Parsons. “With the film material we can follow the thermal heat and observe the chronological and temporal progression, which we would like to recreate in a computer model.”
As super forest fires continue to occur in the country, computer models of fire behavior can help predict fire dynamics and inform local management and response. According to Parsons, the models play a particularly important role in helping managers examine various options and assess how mandatory fires or fuel treatments can help fight the fire. Parsons said he ultimately hopes to use the data to create simulation training for firefighters in the wild.
“As we continue to experience extreme droughts and high temperatures, we know that forest fires are not getting better, they are getting worse,” he said. “So in the meantime, we can model the fire so we can try to predict the interactions between fuel and fire in different environments.”
Maggie Epstein, graduate of UM forestry and operations manager that day, was responsible for the safety of the fire fighters and reported directly to the fire chief. Epstein had to manage the day’s variables, including wind, fuel, and humidity, and deliver orders to the fire department.
“I’m mostly in a lab between four and five days a week, so it’s nice to come out today and be on the line,” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of Burn, which has so many moving parts, goals and agencies.”
While some parts of the fire subsided as the day progressed, other areas jumped over irrigation ditches and lit campfires ignited outside the security line, creating a drama for which the crew was fully prepared and trained.
“Keeping the fire within control lines is of the utmost importance, but threats like these are anticipated, planned, and provide a learning opportunity to evaluate what we could change in the future to avoid these sources of fire,” Queen said.
Queen said what sets UM’s expertise in fire science apart is that most, if not all, FireCenter faculties and staff serve as firefighters in the wild when they’re not teaching or researching.
“It is immensely important for us not only to be experts in the discipline, but to never lose that practice and connection with the field,” he said.
Ryan Kirk, a UM freshman from Eugene, Oregon with a business emphasis, also worked on the fire that day in preparation for spending the summer as a firefighter in the Wyoming wilderness.
“I’m glad to have this experience on my map and I love being out here with other Fire Club volunteers,” he said. “An important reason why I chose UM are such experiences. I can’t say that fire is easy to work or that the hours aren’t long, but it’s always fun. Actually addicting. ”