Dan Jimenez doesn’t get to do this very often. It’s almost unheard-of for researchers to get this close to such a massive fire: In a few hours, if all goes well, more than 2,000 acres of trees will be ablaze, in a controlled burn that will emulate the conditions and behaviors of naturally-occurring wildfires.
Jimenez, a researcher with the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab, in Montana, is here setting up a series of cameras and heat sensors right at the edge of the future wildfire, as part of an new joint project between the U.S. Forest Service and a handful of research institutions. The goal: to better understand how wildfires spread — and why they’ve become so dangerous, to towns and the firefighters sent to put them out.
“The data we are collecting, that’s really valuable because of the implications of safety zones and firefighters’ safety, and what constitutes a safe environment,” Jimenez told VICE News.
VICE News Tonight got a rare look at the inner workings of this essential — and potentially dangerous — study, from the first ignition (by helicopter and ATVs bearing flamethrowers), to the day after, when researchers returned to check on their charred equipment.
“As scientists, our job is to gather data and make sense of it — and prove scientifically what is safe,” Jimenez said. “I think that’s the starting point. If you are really going to change the culture, it starts through an organic process.”
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