Fire science isn't just about understanding fire dynamics and investigation methods. It's also about evaluating fire forensics and past events in order to prevent fire disasters in the future.
The science of fire investigation relies on learning from previous mistakes. By studying wildfire patterns over time, for example, scientists can identify high-risk conditions and suggest ways to reduce the risk of fire.Our ability to prevent and fight fires is also improving thanks to the development of better methods, equipment and technology.
New Approaches to Containing Wildfires
While unplanned wildfires may result from natural causes, such as lightning, they are more often caused by human activity. Recent decades have seen an uptick in the number of megafires, especially in the United States. This phenomenon has been linked to factors including:
- Climate change, especially hot and dry weather
- Accumulation of dead trees and brush that could potentially fuel a fire
- Deforestation of land for agricultural use
- Residential development that encroaches on wildlife
Researching the interactions between humans, fire and climate allows us to pinpoint vulnerabilities in the environment and mitigate the risk of large fires.
For instance, some scientists believe today's megafires are a direct result of our containing wildfires in the past. They hypothesize that by changing our approach to wildfire management — e.g. letting some fires burn longer and larger, and even setting controlled fires— we could succeed in preventing fire disasters in fire-prone regions.
Advances in Fire Science Technology
Most people associate the use of chemical flame retardants with the popularity of synthetic materials in clothing and furniture in the 1970s. But it might surprise you to learn that the first patented example of these products, a flame retardant theater canvas, actually dates back to 1735.
Moving back to modern times, researchers at Stanford University recently announced a new development in chemical engineering. Lithium-ion batteries have a tendency to burst into flame due to overcharging or electrical shorts; the Stanford scientists invented a fast-acting thermo-responsive composite material that prevents this from happening.
In addition to prevention, the fire science industry is constantly seeking new ways to improve firefighting technology. Whether it's a new safety measure, piece of equipment or fire-resistant material, the goal is to decrease the risk of emergency and lower injury rates in the most cost-effective way.
Likewise, in the aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) industry, "the culture is driven by an ever-increasing desire to improve the safety of the flying public and the responders who protect them." Recent ARFF innovations include:
- Harnessing wind power for "cooling, smoke removal, toxic gas removal and increasing visibility" during a fire or other types of emergencies
- Specially developed liquid agents that allow crews to extinguish extremely high-heat fires in minutes instead of hours
- New devices, such as ultra-high pressure penetrating nozzles, that maximize effectiveness and provide a safety advantage for putting out fires
- Mass-application vehicles specialized for maximum effectiveness in disaster relief
If you would like to play a role in preventing future fire disasters, you might consider pursuing a bachelor's in fire science (BS-FS) degree. Anna Maria College is one institution that offers an online Bachelor of Science in Fire Science. The curriculum includes courses such as Disaster Planning and Control and Applications for Emergency Services Research that help place graduates at the forefront of fire services, safety and prevention.
- North, M., Stephens, S., Collins, B., Agee, J., Aplet, G., Franklin, J. & Fule, P. (2015) Reform forest fire management: Agency incentives undermine policy effectiveness. Environmental Science, 349 (6254), 1280-1281.
- Griggs, M. (2015) To prevent huge forest fires, let them burn. Retrieved from Popular Science website: http://www.popsci.com/new-study-finds-in-order-to-effectively-prevent-huge-forest-fires-let-them-burn
- Jacoby, M. (201) This heat-responsive coating could keep lithium-ion batteries from catching fire. Chemical & Engineering News, 94(3), 7.
- Giraud, J. (2010) Technology and ARFF: Saving lives through innovation. Fire Engineering, 163(8), 1-8.