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

The annual Celebrate Excellence Breakfast on September 20 acknowledged the collective achievements of the College of Engineering over the last 12 months and looked ahead to what’s sure to be another academic year filled with renewed promise and success. The College introduced new hires, recognized faculty and staff who earned promotions, and honored outstanding achievement with its Celebrate Excellence awards. This year’s award recipients are:

Adam Higgins: Austin Paul Engineering Faculty Award, which recognizes faculty who “develop student relationships in which they lead, encourage, and stimulate students in the pursuit of creative and innovative engineering ideas.”

Jens Odegaard: Classified Employee Award, which recognizes “exceptional performance and service.”

Elisha Brackett,: Professional Faculty Award, which recognizes “outstanding performance by a faculty member whose contribution and service is not defined within the traditional categories of teaching, research, or extension.”

Kagan Tumer: The Research Award, which recognizes “sustained, unusually significant and meritorious achievement in research and scholarship.”

Sinisa Todorovic: The Research Collaboration Award, which recognizes a member of the engineering faculty for “sustained, unusually significant and meritorious achievement in collaborative research and scholarship.”

Arun Natarajan: The Engelbrecht Young Faculty Award, which recognizes “outstanding young faculty” in the College of Engineering.

Skip Rochefort: Alumni Professor Award, which recognizes “excellence in teaching and service to students.”

Benjamin Brewster: Loyd Carter Award, which recognizes faculty for “outstanding and inspirational teaching,” as voted by members of the junior and senior class in the College of Engineering.

Katarina Morowsky: Graduate Teaching Assistant Award, which recognizes efforts “beyond the level normally expected of a GTA.”

Yang Xu and Nitish Kumar: Graduate Research Assistant Award, which recognizes contributions “beyond the level normally expected of a GRA.”

Tanner Fiez: Burgess/Tektronix Award, which recognizes an “outstanding senior in the College of Engineering,” as judged by a variety of activities beyond just academic performance.

 

 

 

by Dr. Cynthia Leonard, Benton Day Camp Director

Eight engineering graduate students volunteered time this summer to work with 160 Girl Scouts ranging from grades 1-12 at Benton Day Camp.

The students did an incredible job conducting a water siphoning activity, and were engaging, funny, patient, and very prepared, adapting the concepts and teaching strategies to the appropriate age level. They blended theory with hands-on activity, and took an excellent problem-solving approach with the girls.

Thank you to Aaron Fillo (student lead), Valerie Byxbe, Anthony Harteloo, Matthew Hoeper, Tara Larson, Taylor Rawlings, Tassilo Selover-Stephan, and Kyle Zada for impacting these girls and their families, and investing in the next generation. The presence of these engineering students at our camp gets the girls excited and interested in engineering and related areas.

by Makenzie Budge and Caleb Lennon

The Oregon State University student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) completed its second international service project last summer. The chapter designed and built a rainwater catchment system to bring clean, potable water to the community of Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, where the community’s septic systems were infiltrating the groundwater table during heavy rainfall. The project is currently providing clean water to approximately 400 people.

Oregon State Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers in Nicaragua
Oregon State Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers in Nicaragua

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Mechanical engineer endeavors to improve hand surgeries

Sutures have been the primary way to connect muscles, tendons, or any biological tissue for 30,000 years. This fundamental method of sewing together living body parts has served humankind well, but Ravi Balasubramanian sees room for improvement. Through a new research project called REHand (for Re-Engineering the Hand) he is designing a mechanical implant that provides an alternative to the suture for attaching muscles to tendons in certain applications such as tendon transfer surgeries on patients with hand injuries.  Continue reading