Extreme environments expert discusses causes of recent wildfires
Wildfires in Hawaii have devastated the island of Maui and leveled the historic town of Lahaina. As federal and local authorities investigate the causes of the disaster, questions have arisen about the effectiveness of government responses to the crisis. A new wildfire raged briefly on Aug. 7, forcing more temporary evacuations.
Beyond the catastrophe in Hawaii, Canada continues to experience its worst ever wildfire season, with more than 1,000 active fires. Brian Lattimer, Director of Virginia Tech’s Extreme Environments and Materials Lab, explains what the Maui and Canadian wildfires have in common.
Q: Are there common factors between the Maui fires and the wildfires in Canada?
“Very high winds and dry vegetation are two primary things that you typically will see with all such fires. High winds typically tilt the fire in such a way that it's able to propagate quickly, advancing to vegetation that's not ignited. Very high winds also tend to dry out vegetation even more, so you have this situation where things can ignite very quickly. Terrain is a factor as well. Where it's sloped upward, fire will advance very quickly.”
Q: The focus of your research has been on firebrands. How do you define that term?
“Firebrands are these small pieces of vegetation that break off from burning trees or grass, fly up in the air, land on stuff a mile or two away, and ignite things. (If it's flying in the air, then that's a firebrand, and once it lands, it's an ember.) It appears that this kind of thing may have been happening in Hawaii and happens all the time — they ignite things a mile or two away from the main fire, where firefighters aren't located. By the time they get there, there's usually a lot of damage.”
Q: What could result from the investigation into the Maui fires?
“It's obviously still under investigation and nobody has all the details yet. They had three fires on the island. They’re trying to manage those three different fires. When you get in that kind of situation where it's dry and you have very high winds, things can change quickly, and it's really difficult to plan for some of those situations. These are natural disasters, and we do our best to try to handle them. One thing we should do is use this as a learning experience, figure out what happened here and determine what we can do to prevent this from happening again.”
Brian Lattimer, Professor and Interim Department Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, directs the Extreme Environments and Materials Lab, which focuses on safety in extreme environments primarily related to fire. His wide-ranging project leadership and research has included ignition and burning of materials exposed to firebrands, full-size humanoid robots to perform watch and fire suppression on U.S. Navy ships, and most recently, developing firefighting foams that do not make use of environmentally harmful forever chemicals, also known as PFAS.
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