The WSU Steffen Center, run by the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, is 58 acres of wildlife facilities, small forest plantations, wetlands, uplands, specialized planting areas as well as greenhouses, laboratories and shops. This beautiful facility, located on the east edge of the Pullman campus, is the site of many of the preliminary atmospheric studies done by Brian Lamb, professor, and Tara Strand, Ph.D. student, in the department of civil and environmental engineering.

The Center is also the site where WSU courses on fire ecology are taught by Ben Zamora, associate professor in natural resource sciences.

Predicting fire behavior

Covering the physical and chemical process of combustion as well as computer model predictions for fire behavior, Zamora’s students learn to determine the ecological impacts of fire on the landscape and the species that inhabit it.





(Photo above: controlled burn at WSU Steffen Center.)


In fire labs, students explore the practical aspects of conducting prescribed burns, such as measuring fuel moisture, arrangement, quantity and size. Through the oversight of the Washington Department of Ecology, the class may also conduct larger controlled burns at times when the air quality will allow it.

For example, at the Steffen Center, a major concern is the possible fire hazard in a stand of Ponderosa pine. Zamora’s class takes advantage of that by conducting understory burns for teaching purposes while eliminating the debris that increases fire risk. Students take turns creating strip burns — or backing fires — which are narrow fires started at the furthest downwind point that burn back into the wind.

“It burns directly into the wind,” said Zamora, “so it is very slow and controlled. When one strip burns out, they start another, so it takes a long time and a lot of patience — but it is the only way to control the fire.”

Pitch runs from beetle damage

Once in awhile, the flames can shoot up into the forest canopy and cause a momentary panic.

“Those are called pitch runs,” said Zamora. “When a tree is damaged by bark beetles, it tries to heal the wound with sap or pitch. Pitch is very flammable and the fire can easily follow it up into the branches.”

Zamora and his students use a computer model called Behave to predict the consequences of fire. He uses it regularly to predict the consequences of prescribed burns throughout the Northwest.

As for this year’s wildfire predictions, Zamora said, “All evidence points toward a pretty significant fire season in the Inland Empire, especially in the northern intermountain regions…forest fuels are dry and there is a lot of fuel around. Even the spring rains have not replaced the moisture that would help prevent extreme fires.” So, once again, it is the season to heed that bruin voice of reason: Only YOU can prevent wild fires!