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Title: Warning signals for eruptive events in spreading fires

Spreading fires are noisy (and potentially chaotic) systems in which transitions in dynamics are notoriously difficult to predict. As flames move through spatially heterogeneous environments, sudden shifts in temperature, wind, or topography can generate combustion instabilities, or trigger self-stabilizing feedback loops, that dramatically amplify the intensities and rates with which fires propagate. Such transitions are rarely captured by predictive models of fire behavior and, thus, complicate efforts in fire suppression. This study describes a simple, remarkably instructive physical model for examining the eruption of small flames into intense, rapidly moving flames stabilized by feedback between wind and fire (i.e., “wind–fire coupling”—a mechanism of feedback particularly relevant to forest fires), and it presents evidence that characteristic patterns in the dynamics of spreading flames indicate when such transitions are likely to occur. Here, in this model system, flames propagate along strips of nitrocellulose with one of two possible modes of propagation: a slow, structured mode, and a fast, unstructured mode sustained by wind–fire coupling. Experimental examination of patterns in dynamics that emerge near bifurcation points suggests that symptoms of critical slowing down (i.e., the slowed recovery of the system from perturbations as it approaches tipping points) warn of impending transitions to themore » unstructured mode. Lastly, findings suggest that slowing responses of spreading flames to sudden changes in environment (e.g., wind, terrain, temperature) may anticipate the onset of intense, feedback-stabilized modes of propagation (e.g., “blowup fires” in forests).« less
 [1] ;  [2]
  1. Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA (United States). Dept. of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
  2. Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA (United States). Dept. of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Wyss Inst. for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The Kavli Inst. for Bionano Science and Technology
Publication Date:
Grant/Contract Number:
FG02-00ER45852; W911NF-09-1-0005; 48423
Published Article
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Additional Journal Information:
Journal Volume: 112; Journal Issue: 8; Journal ID: ISSN 0027-8424
National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC (United States)
Research Org:
Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA (United States)
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE Office of Science (SC), Basic Energy Sciences (BES) (SC-22); Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); John Templeton Foundation (United States)
Country of Publication:
United States
54 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES; bistability; combustion; complex systems; critical slowing down; wind–fire coupling
OSTI Identifier:
Alternate Identifier(s):
OSTI ID: 1348361