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.”

Mike JohnnieRecently named director of engineering for the Moog Aircraft Group, Mike Johnnie (’82 B.S., Electrical Engineering) has been flying high in the aerospace industry since he graduated from Oregon State University.

The Moog Aircraft Group primarily develops and supports flight control systems which are integrated into a wide range of commercial and military aircraft.

This involves building the systems that control the actuation of the aircraft — the machinery or systems that control how an aircraft flies. If you have flown in an airplane, you’ve probably observed that there are parts of the wing that move during takeoff and landing; the actuators are the hydraulics or electrical machinery that move these parts. Moog builds the electronics and software that control these actuators as well as the actuators themselves.

At Moog, Johnnie has a busy schedule managing a staff of 500, but still finds time to help his alma mater. He serves as a member of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s industrial advisory board and is especially interested in increasing experiential learning opportunities for students.

“It’s vitally important that students get an idea of what their job as an engineer is going to look like,” Johnnie said. “Every chance we have to give students the opportunity to learn what it is that their boss will need from them and what the skillsets that they’re learning at Oregon State are going to be used for will make it much better for all involved.”

He notes that new engineers are going to be expected to stand on their own to a certain degree and to be self-motivated. Internships or other experiences will help give graduates the confidence and skills they need to meet these expectations.

Johnnie and his wife, Carol, who live in Southern California, have also been helping the OSU Alumni Association by hosting OSU new student sendoffs. The sendoffs allow new students from the area to get together before they leave home, and to meet others who are headed to Oregon State.

Johnnie can empathize. “I know when I moved to Corvallis, having come from Portland, I only knew a couple of people at Oregon State,” he said.

But once on campus, Johnnie thrived. “What I remember most is spending time working on homework and hanging out with my friends, experiencing life at Oregon State,” he said.

Johnnie’s life changing decision to pursue a degree in engineering has truly helped him reach new heights. “I look back and reflect on how I ended up where I am today, and the vast majority of it comes from the education I received at Oregon State,” he said.

The 2018 Graduate Research Showcase took place on Feb. 8 at the LaSells Stewart Center on Oregon State University’s campus in Corvallis. Nearly 150 students presented their research to more than 500 attendees, including industry, students, faculty, and the greater OSU community.

First, second, and third place awards were were granted to the top presenters in each school based on intellectual merit, potential impact, and oral and visual communication skills. The award winners were also invited to attend the 2018 Oregon Stater Awards to present their research.

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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 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.