With its raw power and untamed energy, fire can wreak havoc on a person’s life and livelihood.
In 2017, wildfires in California rated among the largest in the state’s history. They burned for weeks—killing dozens, damaging nearly 10,000 structures and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. While exact figures aren’t known, it’s estimated that the economic loss to the affected regions will be in the billions.
The most recent reports from the U.S. Fire Administration, which compiles statistics on fires of all types, show that nationwide, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama have the most fire-related deaths per million people. And while the number of unintentional fires has decreased over the past decade, there are still more than 1.2 million reported annually.
This force of nature can’t be stopped completely, Mississippi State faculty, staff, students and alumni are finding ways to limit its destruction and help save lives, jobs and property.
Bulldogs serve students, community as volunteer firefighters
On an October Tuesday night, many of sophomore Tristan Jones’ fellow students busy themselves studying, meeting with organizations or, in some cases, relaxing at home.
However, Jones and a few other Mississippi State students have a different night planned. Eschewing the usual campus activities, they gather in the outlying parts of Oktibbeha County learning skills that will allow them to assist fellow students in a time of need.
Jones is one of over a dozen Bulldog students serving as a volunteer firefighter with the East Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Department. On this Tuesday night, the criminology major from Germantown, Tennessee, is training for the emergency calls that could come at any time to address medical crises, structure fires, grass fires and car wrecks.
“What we do, we do for free,” Jones said. “If we didn’t do this, who would?”
Throughout Mississippi, volunteer fire departments rely on dedicated community members to provide essential emergency services, particularly in rural areas. The East Oktibbeha unit’s service area includes a wide expanse of rural land, in addition to densely populated student housing complexes adjacent to the Mississippi State campus. The department responds to eight to 10 calls per week, and because students have a more flexible daytime schedule, they allow the department to respond to those calls as quickly as possible.
“There’s a rush of adrenaline that hits every time you go on a call, every time you hear the tone drop over the radio and the dispatcher lets you know what’s going on,” Jones said. “If I’m doing anything where I’m able to leave immediately and go on a call, I’m going.
“Somebody called 911, it’s somebody’s emergency,” he continued. “It may not seem like the world is ending to you but to them, it may feel that way.”
Tristan Jones (left) and Robert Lehew, both MSU students and volunteer firefighters, train for emergencies during a meeting at the East Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Department.
Each volunteer firefighter goes through a 12-week certification course that culminates with a skills exam at the Mississippi Fire Academy. Greg Ball, chief of East Oktibbeha VFD since 2001, said new firefighters are often surprised by how much training goes into the process but they typically end up really enjoying it.
“Sometimes they think they can just come down here, jump in a vehicle and jump out at somebody’s house,” Ball said. “There’s a lot of training to go through before you go to a house fire with turnout gear on. You have to know what to look for and what to do. You find out really quickly whether you can handle it or not.”
Robert Lehew, a senior industrial technology major from El Dorado, Arkansas, became interested in volunteer firefighting after learning about it from a fraternity brother. The Army ROTC cadet said he enjoys providing a service to fellow students and the Oktibbeha County community.
“When you talk to people about being a firefighter and they find out their apartment is in your district, they usually think it’s pretty cool,” Lehew said. “A lot of people don’t always understand what it takes mentally and emotionally to be a firefighter, but they’re definitely appreciative.”
The East Oktibbeha VFD is where most student firefighters serve, but there are more student volunteers at fire departments throughout the county, said Kirk Rosenhan, Oktibbeha County fire services coordinator. Approximately 15 to 20 Mississippi State faculty and staff members volunteer with the fire department in their communities as well.
In addition to learning intangible skills such as leadership, responsibility and working under pressure, volunteer firefighters often learn skills that inspire them to consider different career paths. Some go on to become full-time firefighters or paramedics. Often, Rosenhan said, the students will apply what they’re learning at Mississippi State to their role as a firefighter.
“These kids are young, energetic, interested and sharp,” Rosenhan said. “I’ve had several engineering majors get involved and look at it as more than running out and squirting a little water. They get interested in the machinery, like the jaws of life, pumps and hydraulics, and the thermodynamics of it. It’s very important to have the students here because of their interest, abilities and, quite frankly, their time.”
Protecting rural communities from fire hazards
Because emergency response times are slower in rural areas, fire safety takes on increased importance for those living a country lifestyle. Most rural water systems are not equipped to provide enough water pressure or flow to support fire suppression, so a tanker is usually dispatched to the scene with water.
Kirk Rosenhan, Oktibbeha County’s fire services coordinator, said people should take precautions to reduce the risk of fire and help mitigate the impact of those that do occur. For example, residents need to have their addresses clearly visible so first responders can quickly identify the correct home. If the home is positioned away from the road, the house number should be clearly marked at the driveway entrance, usually on a mailbox.
Household fire extinguishers should be readily accessible, particularly in kitchens, to handle small, manageable fires, but Rosenhan cautions everyone to “not be a hero.”
“If you have a fire, make sure everyone gets out of the house and assembles in a predetermined location,” he said. “We want you out of the house.”
Rural areas also see a lot of brush and grass fires. Especially in the fall, leaves and dead grass can cause a fire to grow quickly. Because of that, rural residents should use caution when burning anything and avoid burning on windy days.
The same household fire safety tips that apply to city dwellers also apply to those in the outlying county. Rosenhan said everyone should make sure their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order, avoid powering heaters with extension cords, keep flammable objects away from space and wall heaters, and cover any exposed electric wiring.
For more fire safety tips, visit the National Fire Protection Association’s website at www.nfpa.org.
In a country that boasts more than 193 million acres of national forest and grassland, nature serves an important part of people’s lives and livelihoods. Through a collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, a team of Mississippi State researchers wants to protect these resources from malicious attacks.
The project, which includes scientists from the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering, the Forest and Wildlife Research Center, and the Mississippi State University Extension Service, is a first-of-its-kind study into the threat of pyroterrorism and proactive measures that can limit its destructiveness.
“People have done risk assessments for naturally occurring wildfires but they haven’t considered pyroterrorism. It’s a remote possibility but it’s still a possibility,” explained Hugh Medal, an assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering. “Homeland Security is interested in knowing about novel threats and this isn’t something they had considered before.”
The security agency isn’t alone in overlooking the possible threat of pyroterrorism. The project’s co-investigator, Robert Grala, a forestry professor with extensive experience studying wildfires, surveyed more than 1,600 forest managers and fire professionals about the topic. Many reported feeling unprepared.
“A majority of the respondents said they consider a pyroterrorism attack unlikely and aren’t necessarily prepared for it,” Grala explained. “We hope this research can make the community more aware of this threat so they can successfully prevent these fires or mitigate the damage they cause.”
In this study, pyroterrorism refers to deliberately starting a forest or wildfire to cause large-scale damage to life, property and the economy. The researchers calculated the likelihood of this type of attack by evaluating terrorist chatter on the World Wide Web, in which they found articles with instructions for committing the act.
From there they assessed the vulnerability of three national forest landscapes: San Bernardino in California, Santa Fe in New Mexico and Umpqua in Oregon. They considered variables such as the strategic behavior of an attacker, the number of ignition points, wind speed and how many hours a fire may burn until fire crews gain control.
“In the first risk assessment, we were only analyzing the strategy of the attacker in order to estimate the worst-case damage, so from a game-theory standpoint, it was a one-player game,” Medal, the study’s principal investigator, explained.
Using game theory and mathematical programming to create a model of the threat, Medal said they discovered the attacker’s decisions make the difference in the scale of the disaster.
“Overall, a worst-case scenario event caused about twice as much damage as a random wildfire,” Medal explained. “For instance, our model determined that a pyroterror event strategically set in the San Bernardino National Forest that burned for 18 hours with five ignition points, would destroy about 50 percent of the forest compared to 25 percent damage from a random wildfire with the same number of ignitions.”
In the second assessment, the team looked into prevention methods such as reducing the amount of combustible biomass available to fuel a fire. With this approach, the one-player game became two player.
Prescribed burns, like the one seen on p. 27, are one method of managing the destructiveness of wildfires while also providing a number of environmental services, like improving wildlife habitat. By reducing the amount of combustible biomass available to fuel a fire, these intentional, managed blazes help ensure that should a wildfire occur, it will be more easily brought under control.
“In addition to accounting for the attacker’s actions, we assessed fuel-management programs used on the landscape,” Medal said. “We found that implementation of fuel treatment on 2, 5 and 10 percent of the landscape, on average, reduced the damage caused by a pyroterror attack by 14, 27 and 43 percent, respectively.”
The team then added another layer to its model by factoring in first-responder capabilities—enter player three.
“We considered both 30- and 60-minute response times to analyze the vulnerability of the initial attack of a worst-case wildfire with one, two and three ignition points,” Medal said.
As a final test, the researchers ran the model using the landscape of the Santa Fe National Forest, which consists of five ranger districts. The results showed that larger numbers of ignition points would be harder to contain and, in some cases, not all fire stations could respond to an initial attack due to their distance from the source.
Jason Gordon, a co-investigator on the project and an associate extension professor in forestry said despite the unlikelihood of a pyroterror attack, the research shows it is a vulnerability that’s worth exploring. In a country that’s approximately one-third forested land, any chance of it turning to kindling is too serious to ignore.
“I’ve studied wildfires my entire career and I’ve never been a part of a project like this,” Gordon said. “While we don’t see this becoming a common threat, it is still important to acknowledge it as a potential tool for domestic and international terrorists. Our job as researchers is to help lay the groundwork that aids in planning for proactive prevention and response, so land managers and emergency personnel might be better equipped to respond in the future.”
Once a wildfire gets out of control it consumes everything in its path—ravaging homes and destroying lifetimes of memories while evacuating homeowners watch, powerless to stop it. But what if there was a way to protect property without putting lives in danger?
Recent College of Business graduate Anna Barker is creating a fire-prevention system to do just that.
Barker said she was inspired to address the issue while watching television footage of a West Coast wildfire as a sophomore. It showed a man standing on his roof, armed with only a garden hose, trying to keep the flames surrounding his house at bay as he was showered with embers. She recalls thinking there had to be a way for people to protect their homes without facing the fire themselves.
“The fire-prevention system would have to be completely self-monitoring and self-activating so you didn’t have to be there for it to work,” Barker said. “It would also need to be environmentally friendly so it wouldn’t kill the grass or be harmful to humans or animals. It had to be affordable, readily available and aesthetically pleasing for people to actually want to put it on their home.”
She took her idea to Mississippi State’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach. With the help of center director Eric Hill, she teamed with fellow students to form BioProvision, LLC—a startup company through which she developed her fire-prevention system called FIRST and conducted a successful scale-model test.
Short for fire inhibiting rapid safety technology, the FIRST system involves a special fire-retardant gel stored in pressurized tanks. Upon sensing a fire danger, the substance is released through a sprinkler system to completely cover a structure’s exterior to protect it from destruction in the event of a wildfire.
In the spring of 2017, Barker accepted a position with fellow MSU entrepreneurs at Vibe, LLC, makers of Glo light cubes, which allows her to continue pursuing her fire prevention venture.
“I think staying in a startup setting really fosters an entrepreneurial mindset,” Barker explained. “I have the opportunity to experience situations and gain skills that will be so valuable for my future with a company that is on a tremendous growth trajectory.”