An Expert Weighs in on How Home Movies Fuel Fire Science

Editor Intro: When the Reynolds Creek Fire burned through tourist-heavy Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road last summer, a Missouri teen’s footage shot from the backseat of his family’s car demonstrated a breakthrough in fire science. But crowdsourced data like this is nothing new to fire scientists.

Fire scientists can visit few of the more than 80,000 wildfires burning millions of acres every year. Time and distance mean active fires are difficult to study, so footage shot by media and the public are an important source of evidence of wildfire behavior. Footage collected directly by fire scientists takes years to advance our knowledge of fire behavior, and only in combination with existing footage and data from weather stations, vegetation maps, satellite imagery and documented fire progression.

Both members of the public and television journalists are often serendipitously near wildfires, and the images they capture are vital for fire reconstructions and investigations. With smartphones now ubiquitous, there’s more reliable access than ever to high-resolution photos complete with time stamps and GPS tags. Understanding and interpreting this data, however, requires scientific context in ecology, meteorology and fire sciences to weed out ambiguous implications.

A recent breakthrough in understanding how wildfires spread began in the lab and was corroborated by videos and photographs captured in the last few decades, including footage shot by the teenager in Glacier National Park this summer. The potential for citizens to contribute to the advancement of wildfire research will improve greatly as the means to disseminate crowdsourced data becomes more organized.

Mark Finney is a researcher at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, a part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. He studies forest fuels and how fires spread, and his research has helped develop systems to predict fire behavior and optimize fire prevention through fuel reduction.