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Thanks to this lab, we can better protect our homes from fire

California's recent spate of wildfires has caused devastating death and destruction. Can scientific experimentation help us minimize the scope of fire disasters? Scientists at the National Fire Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland, are studying how materials burn and combust, in an effort to inform us about avoiding and mitigating fires. Science producer Nsikan Akpan has the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the current outbreak of wildfires in California shows, 2018 will likely be one of the worst fire seasons in recent history, which raises questions anew, like, how does fire spread, and what can you do to protect your home?

    As part of our web series "ScienceScope," "NewsHour" Nsikan Akpan producer explores the science of fires and offers some tips.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Although this year's wildfire season should be winding down, it continues to leave behind a record wake of destruction.

    As of early November, flames have scorched more than 8.2 million acres in the United States, a 25 percent increase relative to the last decade. Wildfires have raged in recent years, emboldened by climate change. Though the overall number of wildfires has declined slightly since 1985, their individual size and the damage they cause have more than quadrupled.

    Apart from lightning strikes and careless campfires, around 500,000 structure fires start indoors in the U.S. each year. Cooking equipment is the main cause, but the deadliest cases involve cigarettes and upholstered furniture.

    So, today, we're going to turn this chair into an inferno to show you how to protect your house from indoor and outdoor fires. "ScienceScope" watched this blaze at the National Fire Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

    This 32,000-square-foot facility is one of the largest labs in the world dedicated to studying how buildings respond to fire.

  • Matt Bundy:

    Anything that you can measure related to a large fire, we do it.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Matt Bundy, a mechanical engineer, has led the group for 10 years.

  • Matt Bundy:

    We make measurements of structural performance, looking at how structures deform, so, everything from fires on small pieces of furniture up to multi-story, multi-bay structures.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    As part of the National Institute of Standards and technology, or NIST, their experiments form the basis of fire codes for buildings and furniture.

    Their lab resembles a movie set. Each experiment is filmed from various angles to build computer simulations. These vivid models split the area into millions of one-inch boxes called grid cells.

  • Kevin McGrattan:

    In each of those little boxes, we solve conservation equations of mass, momentum and energy.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Kevin McGrattan, one of the lab's mathematicians, says small grid cells allow for a closer look at the chemical reactions that occur deep within a fire.

    Now, you might think temperature dictates whether this fire spreads, but you would be wrong.

  • Kevin McGrattan:

    For us, the key parameter in these experiments is the heat release rate. That is, how much energy is given off by the fire?

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    All furniture is essentially combustible fuel. Much like the food that you eat, that fuel has calories. When you or a fire burns these calories, it generates energy and heat.

    Here, watch how the heat release rate changes over time. Notice how the chair isn't fully consumed until the heat release rate spikes. That's dangerous.

  • Kevin McGrattan:

    What happens, is the heat from the fire rises up to the ceiling and then spreads across the ceiling. Eventually, that hot layer near the ceiling starts to descend as more and more heat and smoke is pumped up from the fire.

    So, then all the contents in the room, all the other chairs, the carpet, any items that are around, they start heating up.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Eventually, you get what's called a flashover, when all the items in the room seem to burst into flames simultaneously.

    To stymie furniture fires, the lab is testing flame retardants made of silicon dioxide, the same material in sand and glass. Heat-related fires can also be prevented by replacing old kitchen appliances with worn-out insulation and by keeping space heaters away from flammable material.

    But flashovers can occur outdoors, too. Research shows, once a fire gets within 33 feet of a home, the heat alone from the fire can cause combustion.

    To help communities resist wildfires, NIST works with people like Pam Leschak, the U.S. Forest Service's national program manager wildland-urban interface and fired-adapted communities.

  • Pam Leschak:

    The most effective thing people can do, the simplest, easiest — do it on a weekend or a couple of weekends — is to create defensible space and harden your home.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    A defensible space involves clearing flammable material from about a hundred feet around the home, unless it's steep terrain, and then it needs to be more than 100 feet.

    For full details, look up Firewise USA. But you can start by watering and mowing your lawns on a regular basis, clear away pine needles and store deck furniture when it isn't being used.

  • Pam Leschak:

    Remove any flammable materials in the yard, propane tanks, lawn mowers, downed trees, limbs, brush.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Swapping wooden fences for metal ones and replacing wood roofs can help too. Oh, and block any crevices around your garage door.

  • Pam Leschak:

    Windblown embers can get into your garage, and there are usually a lot of things in your garage that can burn.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Building houses more than 20 feet from each other can also significantly reduce the spread of fires. People that use defensible space programs are twice as likely to save their homes and businesses during a wildfire.

    But plan ahead, because you never know when a fire might spark.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nsikan Akpan, reporting from Gaithersburg, Maryland.

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