Meet the Scientists Who Play With Fire

By Brian Kahn on at

This story was produced in partnership with Atlas Obscura.

A normal day at the office for me is plopping down in front of a computer and writing and editing posts. A normal day at the office for Mark Finney is lighting stuff on fire.

Finney is a researcher at the US Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, in the US state of Montana. It’s safe to say his job is much more fun than mine, but it’s also crucial to saving lives. The work he and other scientists at the lab do has reshaped our understanding of wildfires. And as we slide further into a hotter, more flammable century, their work will only take on added importance.

Our relationship with fire has always been a complicated one. Harnessed as a cooking source and industrial tool, it’s allowed humanity to flourish. But left to its own devices in the middle of a forest, it can wreak havoc.

Fear of fire unchecked is in many ways what led to the lab’s creation. In 1949, an explosive fire known as the Mann Gulch Fire killed 13 firefighters. That led America's federal government to a realisation: Despite decades of suppressing forest fires, there was little science to suggest that was a good idea. And come to think of it, there was a lot about fire that science still didn’t know.

The Fire Science Lab was born out of that realisation – that research needed to play catch up. Fire is its own element, but it’s influenced by a few key variables: wind, temperature, and humidity. The lab is a place that allows researchers to tweak each of those. They have wind tunnels, chimneys, and huge tables that can change the slope to see how fire acts. They can even generate fire whirls. The whole thing feels like a high school science experiment on steroids, but the findings the lab has produced have completely changed our relationship with wildfires in the real world.

The lab has yielded new models for fire behaviour to protect firefighters. But most importantly, the lab has shown that even though flames trigger an elemental fear for us, we need to learn to live with them because sometimes the forest just needs to burn.

Finney and his team of researchers continue to refine their knowledge, and it couldn’t come at a more important time. Millions of Americans have flocked to forests to build their homes at the exact moment that the climate crisis threatens to send everything up in smoke. Rising temperatures have led to drier conditions and an uptick in large blazes. As last year’s Camp Fire shows, when big blazes and human settlements meet, horrific things can happen.

While Finney and company can’t stop disaster, their research can help limit the damage. Turns out playing with fire has serious consequences.