High-tech firefighting: what's hot now, what's on drawing board

Every year wildfires scorch millions of acres of land in the United States and cost the nation billions of dollars. We still know little about how wildland fires spread, and they can take weeks to bring under control. Here's a look at seven cutting-edge technologies that are helping to fill in the gaps in firefighting capability.

1. Experimental fires

US Forest Service
Experiments in the Missoula Fire Lab’s burn chamber simulate various thresholds and limitations to the spread of fire on a hillside.

After millennia of harnessing, fighting, and simply being mesmerized by fire, humans still know little about how wildfire actually spreads, research forester Mark Finney told The Atlantic. How are flames able to travel horizontally and spread? Why do live plant materials combust so easily when they are essentially all water?

With high-speed cameras and digital imaging tools at the ready, Mr. Finney and his fellow researchers routinely set experimental fires in wind tunnels, combustion chambers, and fire-whirl generators at the Missoula Fire Science Lab in Missoula, Mont.

By studying flame structures and fire dynamics in the laboratory, scientists can help firefighters better predict how a wildfire might spread in the field.

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