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Research forester Mark Finney, left, with the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, demonstrates the “fire wall” in the Fire Behavior Laboratory combustion chamber Thursday afternoon. Mechanical engineer Jason Forthofer looks on from right. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

Anyone who’s played with fire knows that putting it out isn’t as much fun as watching it burn.

It took awhile, but even the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory reached that conclusion. Fifty years ago, U.S. Forest Service Chief Richard McArdle opened the lab with the declaration, “We need to control the fire problem.”

“We evolved rapidly from the policy of fire suppression,” said lab director Colin Hardy. “By the early 1970s, we had a team developing guidelines for prescribed burning – deliberate use of fire.”


All that heritage goes on display this Saturday when the lab conducts its public rededication ceremony. Among the speakers will be Hardy’s father, Charles E. “Mike” Hardy, a retired lab project leader who took his son to hear McArdle speak on Sept. 12, 1960.

Visitors will also get to tour the lab facilities, including the tall west-end tower that holds the world’s largest controlled combustion chamber for testing fire behavior. Research forester Mark Finney gave an advance demonstration of some of its features on Thursday, including a fire wall and a fire whirl chamber.

“You can’t just go buy these things,” Finney said of the 12-foot-tall wall and 20-foot-tall whirl chamber. “So we don’t really have better names for them. But they allow us to study flames for as long as we want – as long as we have gas.”

While forest fire incident commanders and crew leaders have developed thick manuals of fire behavior they rely on to keep themselves safe, it turns out the actual physics of flame still has a lot of unknowns. The fire wall sends up a sheet of flame that cools as it rises, but also becomes more turbulent. Finney uses it to learn how different intensities of flame ignite unburned trees and shrubs. Eventually, that will help firefighters predict how fast a blaze might move through different kinds of forests.


The whirl chamber studies a more pernicious kind of fire effect. Under certain wind or geographic conditions, forest fires can produce tornadolike plumes that move much faster than ordinary flame fronts. Sometimes these plumes don’t even burn, but deliver winds strong enough to flip a truck or lift a house. They can also fling burning embers half a mile ahead of the main fire.

“There’s been a lot of research on fire whirls’ velocity and structure,” said mechanical engineer Jason Forthofer. “But there’s almost no work done on how they get started. And we know these can be really hazardous to firefighters. We got this apparatus built about two weeks ago.”

Hardy said many people assume because the lab sits between the Forest Service Smokejumper Center and its Research and Technology Center, it must be scrambling during the summer fire season. In fact, the staff of 12 senior scientists, 35 professional technicians and another 40 support workers work on those problems year-round.

The lab has an annual budget of nearly $10 million, three-quarters of which is grant funding from other agencies and academic institutions.

Senior scientist Kevin Ryan said it can take up to 12 years before basic laboratory research evolves into practical advice for hot shot teams.

“You can read books and get ideas,” Ryan said. “But when you build an apparatus like this, it generates new ideas about what you can measure and examine.”

Those ideas get fed into one of the largest computer facilities in the entire Forest Service, Hardy said. That includes a new Cray Supercomputer that’s now getting installed to describe how much smoke will travel how far from forest fires all over the nation. Other computers handle a landscape simulation model program that can forecast how fires might change forests over 200 or 300 years.

Hardy said those computers have grown in capacity at the same rate the lab’s scientists have expanded their understanding of plant and fire behavior.

“Our people were ready to use this technology before it got here,” he said. “Our mission is to create new knowledge.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

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