Physical phenomena controlling quiescent flame spread in porous wildland fuel beds

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Abstract / Description of output

Despite well-developed solid surface flame spread theories, we still lack a coherent theory to describe flame spread through porous wildland fuel beds. This porosity results in additional complexity, reducing the thermal conductivity of the fuel bed, but allowing in-bed radiative and convective heat transfer to occur. While previous studies have explored the effect of fuel bed structure on the overall fire behaviour, there remains a need for further investigation of the effect of fuel structure on the underlying physical phenomena controlling flame spread. Through an extensive series of laboratory-based experiments, this thesis provides detailed, physics-based insights for quiescent flame spread through natural porous beds, across a range of structural conditions. Measurements are presented for fuel beds representative of natural field conditions within an area of the fire-prone New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, which compliment a related series of field experiments conducted as part of a wider research project. Additional systematic investigation across a wider range of fuel conditions identified independent effects of fuel loading and bulk density on the spread rate, flame height and heat release rate. However, neither fuel loading nor bulk density alone provided adequate prediction of the resulting fire behaviour. Drawing on existing structural descriptors (for both natural and engineered fuel beds) an alternative parameter ασδ was proposed. This parameter (incorporating the fuel bed porosity (α), fuel element surface-to-volume ratio (σ), and the fuel bed height (δ)) was strongly correlated with the spread rate. One effect of the fuel bed structure is to influence the heat transfer mechanisms both above and within the porous fuel bed. Existing descriptions of radiation transport through porous fuel beds are often predicated on the assumption of an isotropic fuel bed. However, given their preferential angle of inclination, the pine needle beds in this study may not exhibit isotropic behaviour. Regardless, for the structural conditions investigated, horizontal heat transfer through the fuel bed was identified as the dominant heating mechanism within this quiescent flame spread scenario. However, the significance of heat transfer contributions from the above-bed flame generally increased with increasing ασδ value of the fuel bed. Using direct measurements of the heat flux magnitude and effective heating distance, close agreement was observed between experimentally observed spread rates and a simple thermal model considering only radiative heat transfer through the fuel bed, particularly at lower values of ασδ. Over-predictions occurred at higher ασδ values, or where other heat transfer terms were incorporated, which may highlight the need to include additional heat loss terms. A significant effect of fuel structure on the primary flow regimes, both within and above these porous fuel beds, was also observed, with important implications for the heat transfer and oxygen supply within the fuel bed. Independent effects of fuel loading and bulk density on both the buoyant and buoyancy-driven entrainment flow were observed, with a complex feedback cycle occurring between Heat Release Rate (HRR) and combustion behaviour. Generally, increases in fuel loading resulted in increased HRR, and therefore increased buoyant flow velocity, along with an increase in the velocity of flow entrained towards the combustion region. The complex effects of fuel structure in both the flaming and smouldering combustion phases may necessitate modifications to other common modelling approaches. The widely used Rothermel model under-predicted spread rate for higher bulk density and lower ασδ fuel beds. As previously suggested, an over-sensitivity to fuel bed height was observed, with experimental comparison indicating an under-prediction of reaction intensity at lower fuel heights. These findings have important implications particularly given the continuing widespread use of the Rothermel model, which continues to underpin elements of the BehavePlus fire modelling system and the US National Fire Danger Rating System. The physical insights, and modelling approaches, developed for this low-intensity, quiescent flame spread scenario, are applicable to common prescribed fire activities. It is hoped that this work (alongside complimentary laboratory and field experiments conducted by various authors as part of a wider multi-agency project (SERDP-RC2641)) will contribute to the emerging field of prescribed fire science, and help to address the pressing need for further development of fire prediction and modelling tools.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Hadden, Rory, Supervisor
  • Welch, Stephen, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Fire
  • fire science
  • wildfire
  • flame spread
  • porous fuels


Dive into the research topics of 'Physical phenomena controlling quiescent flame spread in porous wildland fuel beds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this