Keeping a ‘burning issue’ in check

Scientist studies balance between wildfire benefits and risks to human developments

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Bob Kremens

Maybe Smokey Bear got it wrong. 

Forests are supposed to burn every once in awhile. Natural fires replenish soil, stimulate new growth and open up forests for animals and people to move around better.

The U.S. Forest Service started in 1905 as a steward and protector because no one wanted the forests to burn.

“It wound up being a bad thing because we loved the forests so much,” says Bob Kremens, research associate professor at RIT. “They didn’t know the relationship between fire and science and ecology, and maybe they lost sight of the native culture that really figured this out eons ago, how to live in a fire environment.”

Kremens—a self-described “instrumentation guy” in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science—measures the physics of fire. He joined RIT nearly a decade ago to work on the fire research program that was just getting started in the center. Back then, Kremens didn’t know anything about fire. Now, he’s busy collecting data 
used to benchmark prediction codes. 

“We fly over the fire with a unique camera system and we get a movie of that fire behavior,” he says. “Every frame is a different pass over the fire. So you can see it growing and getting bigger.”

Kremens—who stays on the ground—has used the camera system 23 times in conjunction with sensors he plants in fires to collect additional data.

His research takes him to wildfires out West and to prescribed burns in Georgia, Florida and Kentucky intended to restore burning regimes used by Native Americans. Kremens is also a type II firefighter—“a ground-pounder, the lowest level of training you need to be on the fire end.” 

“Fires are run by incident commanders, and they have to have confidence that you’re not going to go and do your research and burn yourself up,” he says. “You have to be able to talk the language. You have to look like a firefighter.”

But it’s more than looks; when Kremens is not conducting research, he’s working with the team of firefighters.

“There are two sides of fire,” he says. “The environmental side and the ‘fireman side’—the suppression side. My collaborators at the U.S. Forest Service Fire Lab in Missoula, Mont. and researchers elsewhere realized that fire is part of the natural world. The effort now is to restore fire regimes traditionally used in the United States and to balance that with suppression near human developments.

“It’s a really great time to be in fire research,” he says. “There are social issues, too. It’s very complicated.”

The wild-and-urban interface is a conundrum facing the U.S. Forest Service. It’s a problem when people build beautiful houses in the woods, typically in parts of California and Colorado. They don’t want them to burn down. “How do you balance between fire suppression and letting fires burn that are started naturally?” Kremens asks.

The culture that has evolved around suppressing wildfires is remote to those who live in the Northeast, where urban growth and the depletion of forestlands extinguished the natural fire cycle centuries ago. While wildfires always come with consequences, less populated parts of the country with high unemployment rates depend on the revenue they generate.

Fires give people work. Contractors show up at fire camps with tents and shower vans and small planes for spotting fires for hire. 

“Everyone wants fire because they make money on it,” Kremens says. “If you’re going to put a fire out, you need people to do it. You call contractors. They are professional firefighters. It’s money for people in these hard hit places that don’t have a lot of industries. We send our kids to Wegmans to work; they send their kids to fires to work. What else are you going to do in Montana?

“Wildfire in this country is a mix of science, sociology and anthropology. I’m very jazzed up about this.”