When Oregon State University’s David Blunck planned to start burning trees to study the amount of embers different species generate to help advance wildfire prediction models, he had a small problem: he didn’t have a location for the controlled burns.
So Blunck, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, came up with a solution: to do the controlled burns on the 14-acre hobby farm in Albany where he and his family live.
Blunck said the solution is an example of the problem solving mentality he learned spending time on his grandparents’ farm in Hermiston as he grew up.
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” he said.
That study, Blunck said, involved burning live fuels — in this case very recently harvested Doug fir, grand fir, ponderosa pine and western juniper — and was designed to give researchers a way to count the number of embers coming off burning live trees.
“When I thought about wildfires, I thought the problem was the wall of flames, but it’s really these embers.”
During fires, he said, embers cast off of burning trees can get caught on the wind and spread for miles. Blunck said the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge in 2017 was an example of this: the fire was able to hop the river because of floating embers.
Blunck said that among trees of a similar size, the study found western junipers and grand firs produce the most embers and ponderosa pines produce significantly fewer embers than the other species tested.
Blunck said the study, which involved burning 108 trees ranging from 10 to 15 feet tall that were mostly harvested in OSU’s research forest, could theoretically help inform firefighters on how to allocate resources during a forest fire.
For example, they could know they need to be extra alert if the trees involved are species more likely to scatter embers.
Blunck said wildfires weren’t initially his planned field of research. Before he came to OSU in 2013 he was a civilian contractor working for the Air Force on improving combustion in gas turbine engines. But when he came to OSU, he realized he needed to carve out a new niche and decided the university’s forestry program gave him some synergy for wildfire research.
“It was, pardon the pun, a hot topic to work on,” he said.
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Blunck began applying for grants for the ember study in 2014 and did the burns last spring and summer.
His team, the Combustion, Ignition, Radiation, and Energy Laboratory, includes seven graduate students, two research associates and additional undergraduate employees.
OSU announced in February that Blunck and his team had been awarded a $2.1 million grant from the United States Department of Defense to expand their research on fires burning live fuels. Blunck said many past studies on forest fires have used dead trees, assuming that they will behave like live trees if they are a bit wet. However, his research is focused on studying trees burned very shortly after harvest — within just a day or two.
The new study is also aimed a studying live fuels. Blunck said that, currently, most live-fuel fire studies are species specific, which means if a new species hasn’t been studied they wouldn’t have data that could fit into fire models.
Blunck’s team will be burning a variety of live fuels in a laboratory and observing them using a suite of diagnostics including a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy system to study chemicals emitted in the burning process. Blunck is exploring the idea that just a handful of factors in the composition of these fuels can determine how likely they are to burn.
“It's really better to understand what's driving the sensitivity when you have different fuels. Our theory is that it's just a few processes that cause the differences when you burn different live fuels, and if we can understand what they are, we can better predict how new species would burn," he said in OSU’s announcement.
Blunck said one of the goals of the study is to help enhance a physics-based wildfire model the United States Forest Service is developing. He said if possible, his group will be working to adapt the model to something that can be used in the field by firefighters.
Work on the study will start this summer and is scheduled to continue for four years, Blunck said.
Although the work will mostly be in the laboratory, Blunck said his team will also be participating in controlled burns, which help them understand temperatures and other conditions involved in wildfires, which can inform the conditions they use in their laboratory tests.
Blunck said the research allows him to meet his goal of helping his students reach their potential while contributing to scientific understanding in an area that makes an impact.
“And frankly, it’s fun,” he added.