By Majeed Badizadegan

Oregon and neighboring states have been devastated by unprecedented wildfires this summer. 

David L. Blunck, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University

High temperatures, strong winds, dry conditions, and low humidity have combined to create the massive blazes, says David L. Blunck, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

Blunck studies wildfires and the hazards they pose to people and property in the wildland-urban interface. A longtime Oregon resident, Blunck says he could not recall a time when fires posed a more immediate threat to so many in the state. 

“This fire event is unusual in the scope, number, size, and communities affected,” he said. 

Blunck’s research focuses on how wildfires spread through spot fires, which form when firebrands — pieces of burning material such as wood, needles, cones, or bark — break off from structures or trees and are carried in the air. Specifically, he studies the generation of firebrands and what controls ignition once they land. Thin fuels, such as needles on trees, can ignite quickly, Blunck explains. 

“Even seemingly small shifts in humidity can greatly impact how easily smaller fuels ignite,” he said. 

In extreme fire events, firebrands can be carried by winds on the order of 10 miles. During the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, a firebrand jumped the Columbia River from Oregon to start a new blaze on the Washington side, about 4 miles away. Firebrands pose a serious threat to homes. They can jump containment lines and start new fires by landing on roofs or decks, or by entering houses through ducts and windows. 

Infared imaging shows firebrands emitting from a burning tree.

In partnership with the College of Forestry, Blunck has set up experiments burning trees up to 20 feet tall. His team collects, counts, and measures the characteristics of firebrands that land on the ground. Their aim is to learn how different tree types burn and emit firebrands. To date, there is little research the size and scope of Blunck’s work. He hopes his research helps push forward the field and increase understanding of how wildfires propagate with different fuel sources. 

Blunck is working with collaborators to share results and to improve the fidelity of computational models in order to more accurately predict firebrand behavior. This ultimately could help in prioritization of fire response. 

“Fires are part of the ecosystem, and part of Mother Nature. It’s part of the natural cycle,” Blunck said. “We are going to have fires, and they are going to get worse. Changes in the climate, increased fuel within forests, and humans living closer to the wilderness make it a perfect storm for fires.” 

The majority of fires are put out quickly. However, this creates a vulnerability to wildland-urban interfaces as the forest floor accumulates more and more fuel. Blunck hopes to see more prescribed burns to reduce the buildup of fuel and updated building codes to make structures more fire-resistant. 

“People don’t like the smoke from prescribed burns. No one likes smoke,” Blunck said. “You can have your smoke in the spring when you know it will go away. Or you can have it in the summer when it’s much more dangerous and there are no guarantees.”

Living in Oregon means living next to large swaths of wilderness. This proximity offers benefits that many residents enjoy, but it also brings risks. ”We need to mitigate the risk to homes and structures. Firefighters will not be able to contain every fire,” Blunck said. “Oregon residents must be more in tune with the risk of wildfire. We must acknowledge it and face it head-on.”

By Steve Frandzel

Elmond Decker

Elmond Decker ‘51, inventor, educator, and a member of Oregon State’s Engineering Hall of Fame, will be inducted into the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame for contributions in electrical signal technology. His work enabled the United States Navy to produce a new generation of technologically advanced ships that confound radar detection.

The induction ceremony is November 9, 2017, in Dayton, Ohio.

Decker will be honored for his pioneering work in specialized high-frequency wave transmission technology. The state-of-the-art technology, which minimizes radar reflections, has been incorporated into littoral combat ships and a recent class of destroyers.

After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Decker returned home to study electrical engineering at Oregon State on the G.I. Bill. While conducting research for the military during the post-Korean War era, he developed an over-the-horizon radar system to better monitor Russian missile launches and the technology to minimize radar reflections on naval vessels. In 2011, Decker was named to Oregon State’s Engineering Hall of Fame.

After retirement, Decker worked with the Dayton, Ohio, Engineering and Science Foundation to develop science kits and books for school systems around the world.

The mission of the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame is “to recognize and honor engineers and scientists for achievements that significantly enhance the quality of life for humanity.” Its inductees include the Wright Brothers, Charles Kettering, Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Graham Bell, and many others.

By Keith Miller

Keith and Deanne Reeves Miller
Keith and Deanne Reeves Miller
St. Petersburg, Russia
1998

My interest in science started at South Eugene High School in 1960, but it was biology, not space travel, that first hooked me. I loved watching tiny creatures through a microscope, dissecting frogs and anatomy.

Before the annual science fair, I searched for project ideas. My teacher knew of a student who had kept a chicken heart beating in a saline-filled petri dish. Because my dad hauled these critters to the Swift & Company slaughter house, he had access to live chickens. I got the saline solution at a drug store. The teacher anesthetized the chicken, and we dissected its chest and removed its heart. That heart kept beating for over an hour, which fascinated the visitors and the science fair judges, who awarded me first place. Continue reading

Mechanical engineering student Sam Walker and his solar trailer.
As a mechanical engineering student committed to energy efficiency, Sam Walker designed and built a solar trailer with two other OSU engineering students.

When Sam Walker wanted to build a solar trailer for his senior design project, his professors balked. Most projects were either industry sponsored or based on faculty research, not on the design whims of a student.

But Walker stuck with his vision to build a mobile station that could supply power using solar energy — and luckily so. After writing a formal proposal and raising thousands of dollars, his professors agreed to let him design, build, and present the trailer at the annual Engineering Expo. Continue reading