Fighting fire with fire: Can science save us from megafires?

MISSOULA, Mont. -- Fire has always ignited Mark Finney's curiosity. The research forester has dedicated his life to studying how it burns.

"You would think that after 400,000 years of humans using fire for domestic purposes, like heating and lighting and cooking, that we would understand how fires behave and how they spread," he said. "But that's not true. That's why we're here and that's why this laboratory exists."

The U.S. Forest Service Fire Lab in Missoula, Montana, is illuminating the secrets behind this natural phenomenon, lighting fires to smoke out the unknown.

"The more experience people have with understanding it, the less surprised they are when they see something out in the wild," Finney said.

Controlling temperature, humidity and wind, scientists are able to replicate fire activity seen on the front lines, studying how fire catches and spreads.

Finney and his team are working to update fire models, some of which are about five decades old. That's a problem because many wildland firefighters have said what they experience in the field today is like nothing they've ever seen before.

No, fire properties are not changing, but Finney said the fuel structure is after decades of fire suppression. He also said our understanding of fire is still in the medieval stage.

"There are many reasons to study wildland fire," he said.

One of them is to update firefighter training.

"If you're on a fire and you're watching it, it's important to be able to interpret what you're seeing as to what that means for future fire behavior or whether it's a dangerous situation," Finney explained.

While giving firefighters the most up-to-date models is important, he said an even more valuable application is learning how to avoid dangerous fires in the first place.

"We demonstrate every year that we can't get rid of fires," he said. "Studying fire behavior like this helps us understand exactly how to use prescribed burning or use fuel modification in order to avoid the damaging consequences of wildfire."

Using fire to fight fire, it starts in the lab and then spreads to the forest.