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 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

By Krista Klinkhammer

Global Summit of Women
Left to right: Liz Jachens, Kendra Sharp, Dick Evans, Gretchen Evans, Phylicia Cicilio, and Susan Elliott.

Three engineering graduate students and Kendra Sharp, professor of mechanical engineering, recently accompanied Richard ’69 and Gretchen ’69 Evans to the 2016 Global Summit of Women in Warsaw, Poland. They were among 1,000 women from 75 countries, and many government and industry leaders, including CEOs and former heads of state.

The three graduate students in attendance were recipients of Evans Family Fellowships for field work related to their graduate programs:

  • Liz Jachens, MS student in Water Resources Engineering, received a fellowship for fieldwork in East Africa to develop a School 2 School initiative between U.S. and African schools as part of the Trans Africa Hydro Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO.org) project. The team is working to install weather stations spaced every 30 km across Africa.
  • Susan Elliott, MS student in Water Resources Engineering, received a fellowship for fieldwork in Ethiopia working with the International Water Management Institute.
  • Phylicia Cicilio, Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering, received a fellowship for fieldwork in rural Alaska to acquire and analyze data on the integration of diesel microgrids with renewable energy and energy storage.

Richard Evans moderated a plenary panel called Closing the Digital & Technology Gender Gap, and presented on the success of drawing females to engineering through the Humanitarian Engineering program at Oregon State. The percentage of female engineers in humanitarian engineering coursework offered at Oregon State or funded by scholarships or fellowships through the program is nearing 70 percent.

“This type of experience is so critical to enabling our female students to truly envision themselves as future leaders who can aspire for the top roles in their organizations,” said Sharp, who is also the Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering.

The students were able to attend due to the Evans’ generosity, and appreciated the opportunity to learn from women in leadership positions all over the globe. “I hope to be back in a few years to network and represent myself as a young woman in the industry,” said Jachens.

By Steve Frandzel
Stemming the flow: Students identify costly stormwater intrusion in Corvallis sewers systemBy analyzing average daily water flow rates through the Corvallis sewer system and the length of time that pumping stations operated, Mathew Palmer and his Expo project team determined that large volumes of excess water is infiltrating the system through cracks and fissures in underground pipes.

“Whenever it rains a lot, water seeps into the sewer system through these cracks,” explained Palmer, who is graduating with a degree in chemical engineering. “That means the pumping stations have to work longer, and that costs Corvallis money that could be spent on other things.” Continue reading

By Steve Frandzel
Finding the right angle to improve solar panel efficiency

Corbin Moser’s Expo team was tasked by EarthCruiser USA in Bend, Oregon, to increase the efficiency of solar panels mounted on the company’s all-terrain expedition vehicles.

EarthCruiser vehicles are designed to be self-sufficient during long-term travel in remote locations. They rely on solar panels coupled with batteries for power when parked, and are equipped with an onboard water purification system. Continue reading