COVID-19 worries douse plans for fire experiments

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Intentionally set fires, such as this prescribed burn in Colorado in 2017, are an important tool for fire scientists and land managers. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created new obstacles to obtaining the permits needed to legally set the landscape on fire.

Jason Houston/Redux

By Eli CahanSep. 11, 2020 , 2:30 PM

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

In October, if Roger Ottmar gets his wish, workers will set fire to nearly 500 hectares of dense woodland in southwestern Utah. But COVID-19 may get in the way.

Ottmar, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, is lead investigator for the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE). The experiment is an ambitious effort involving dozens of scientists from across the country. Equipped with light detection and ranging sensors, radar, satellites, and drones—along with flamethrowers to kindle blazes—they study how wildfires are born and evolve. These are increasingly urgent questions given the historic fires now sweeping across the western United States that have charred millions of hectares, killed more than a dozen people, and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

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But before the FASMEE can …

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