Into The Blaze: Scientists Fly Above Raging Wildfires

August 24, 1998

It's wildfire season, and researchers hope to be in the midst of such blazes, during the month of September. Scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, will fly a highly instrumented C-130 research aircraft around and over dangerous wildfires that may ignite this season in the United States. The airplane is reserved for four or five flights over a six-week period out of Jefferson County Airport, northwest of Denver.

"The goal of the research is to understand wildfire behavior well enough to predict the course of a particular fire," says Cliff Jacobs, program manager in NSF's atmospheric sciences division, which funds NCAR. "The flights will test a unique set of remote-sensing tools to determine their combined effectiveness in depicting fires." In addition, chemists will analyze emissions from the burning biomass.

"We're most interested in understanding the violent, unpredictable fires that kill firefighters," says Larry Radke, NCAR co-principal investigator of the Wildfire Experiment (WiFE). "We need to be able to predict the course of a dangerous fire to develop the most effective strategy for suppressing it, while considering the resources available for firefighting."

WiFE is funded by the National Science Foundation, which also sponsors NCAR and owns the NCAR-operated research aircraft. The NSF/NCAR C-130 has the speed, range and endurance to improve researchers' chances of getting to a fire in time to observe it during a dramatic and dangerous phase. The plane will circle the fires at 150 knots or less, cruising between the lowest safe minimum altitude and 10,000 feet.

Wildfires typically burn five million acres in the U.S. annually, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. And the price tag can only grow larger as urban sprawl encroaches on forests nationwide, say experts. According to Radke, large, violent wildfires often generate their own controlling weather. The released heat can spawn deep convection, even thunderstorms, with strong and dangerous winds. So-called fire whirls, cousins of tornadoes, hurl flaming logs and other burning debris to locations miles away, setting other areas ablaze.

Among the research aircraft's heat-sensing instruments will be the new Thermacam, a digital high-resolution infrared imager with a sensing range between -40 and 2,000 degrees Celsius. Fires can reach 1,200 degrees C; a glowing candle tip, about 700. The Thermacam stares out of an opening in one of the airplane's windows and straight through smoke. The result is color video images of hot, swirling air and flames, detailing their motion, size, structure, and temperature. Other instruments aboard the C-130 include a passive microwave imager, an electric field meter, and a fire-imaging spectrometer. The microwave imager targets areas of woody, fire-feeding vegetation such as mesquite, which is common in the southwest. Spotting the blaze's next meal can help observers determine its future path.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s Ames Research Center and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service's Riverside Fire Research Laboratory will provide additional scientists, observers, and instruments. The Rocky Mountain Area Aviation and Fire Coordination Center will help the scientists decide which fires to observe and coordinate flights around the fires.

Editors: Space for journalists is available on some of the C-130's wildfire research flights.
Media contacts:
Cheryl Dybas
(703) 306-1070/
UCAR Communications
(303) 497-8604/

Program contact:
Cliff Jacobs
(703) 306-1521/

National Science Foundation

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