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Sunday, November 29, 2009

News on the Edinburgh Fire Digital Preservation Project

By Susan Deeny, PhD student.

Tao and Ania working on the Archive, 2009

In June of this year several post-grad students from the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh delivered 1400 box files containing the BRE Fire Research Archive from BRE headquarters in Watford to the University of Edinburgh; proof that if a road trip is involved you can get a post-grad to do almost anything. Little did they realise that this delivery, a mammoth task, was just the first challenge in the ambitious project to digitise the archive to ensure the preservation and future dissemination of its contents.

Undaunted the students set about planning the digitisation process of the archive. The primary challenges were finance, equipment and man-power. The students successfully convinced the Edinburgh Small Projects Grant (funded by alumni donations to the University) that this project met their ‘innovation in teaching, research and student provision’ criteria and secured start-up funds. With this and top up funds from the BRE Centre for Fire Engineering, the students secured almost £5000. This was enough to purchase a scanner and employ two fellow students over the summer break to get the project started. The scanner the group settled on was an Atiz BookDrive Mini a v-shaped cradle scanner that employs two digital cameras for image capture; capturing up to 700 pages per hour. The cradle reduces curvature in the scanned image improving the success of optical character recognition software.

Two undergraduate students, Ania Grupka and Tao Gao were recruited over the summer to set up the equipment and develop a robust work flow. Once the scanner was installed and working, the team trained and the methodology set up (which took up most of the summer time), in the space of a month over 185 documents were captured, edited and converted to pdf format, which amounts to 11 of the 1400 box files the archive contains. Based on progress this summer the group are conservatively estimating that at this pace and current team, it will take 8 years to complete the digitising process which is somewhat longer than most students spend at University (in the UK anyway!), thus we are currently looking into ways of boosting the rate of workflow. Increasing productivity is currently the most significant challenge facing the group however many more exist including database development, digital storage and decisions concerning dissemination. Despite these challenges the group have made a significant start towards their goal of preserving and opening up the archive, they are learning fast and they remain undaunted (naïve?).

The BRE Fire Research Archive is a treasure trove of research conducted in the pioneering days of fire safety science. The intention of this project is to create an asset available to the entire fire community, therefore if you feel you can contribute to this project we are eagerly awaiting to hear from you.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Novel methodology to quantify wildland fuels' response to fire

The BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at The University of Edinburgh has developed a methodology for quantifying the flammability of wildland fuels by adapting traditional fire calorimetry methods used to study the reaction to fire of industrial materials (ASTM standard). The methodology and its first application was published in 2007 and it is now being used in other places to improve knowledge of wildfire behaviour.

For this, a specific novel sample holder was designed and built in 2006 for the experiments. The sample holders is a basket made of stainless steel with holes on its walls (sides and bottom), to allow flow to pass through the bed of pine needles (see Figures 1 and 2 bellow). The sample is introduced into one of the two fire calorimeter (cone or FPA) for testing of the fire behaviour. It has been applied to Mediterranean pine needles, boreal moss and boreal peat samples so far.

Figure 1: Sample of live pine needles inside the novel sample holder with permeable walls.
Figure 2: Schema of possible flow of pyrolysis gases around and through the sample. Left) Using an impermeable wall holder in traditional calorimetry test. Right) Using the novel permeable wall sample holder in new tests for porous fuels.

The work, developed originally in 2006 as part of the FIRE PARADOX project (EU-FP7), has led to a PhD thesis and several papers. In chronological order, these are:

- A Calorimetric Study of Wildland Fuels, Proceedings of the 5th International Mediterranean Combustion Symposium, Monastir, Tunisia, 9-13. September 2007.

- A calorimetric study of wildland fuels, Experimental Thermal and Fluid Science, Volume 32, Issue 7, pp. 1381-1389, 2008.

- Transport Effects on Calorimetry of Porous Wildland Fuels, PhD Thesis by CF Schemel, 2008.

- Characterization of live and dead pine needles during combustion, Poster at 9th Symposium of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, Karlsruhe, Sept 2008.

- A study on forest fuel combustion dynamics using the Flaming Propagation Apparatus. European Combustion Meeting, Vienna, Austria, 14-17 April 2009.

- Determination of the main parameters influencing forest fuel combustion dynamics. 6th Mediterranean Combustion Symposium, Ajaccio, 7-11 June, 2009.

- Characterisation of Mediterranean vegetation by oxygen consumption calorimetry for forest fire hazards. 9th Mediterranean Conference on Calorimetry and Thermal Analysis, Marseille, 15-18 June 2009.

- Increased Fire Risk Associated with the Triassic-Jurassic Boundary Global Warming Event, The Geological Society of America, Annual Meeting, Portland, Oct 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trial by Fire - comment on Willingham's trial

by Hans-Werner Wabnitz

The Willingham's trial story recounts a horrific tragedy. The story of a Texas State assassination. The failure of the legal system in a criminal arson case, where the “players” were induced into false intellectual security by self-content, even arrogant, arson investigators.

The case highlights several issues:

The necessity to have smoke detectors in every home / office, and the risk of using any open heat source (heater, stove).

The necessity that experts - here arson investigators - consider state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, as opposed to mere reliance on experience and folklore. Beware of hubris!

The problem that courts are being taken hostage by technical expert-witnesses (here a criminal court, but valid also for civil cases)

The failing of supposedly “fool-proof” legal institutions (not only in the US!) intended to guarantee “fair trial” and avoid the miscarriage of justice, because of human complacency.

The importance of well trained, smart, dedicated and resourceful lawyers, questioning “the obvious” and the assumptions underlying principal arguments - as well as finding a competent expert.

In the case a father of three young children who burned to death in a house-fire received the death penalty because arson investigators testified that the fire “must have been set by a liquid fire accelerator”. Later on a serious expert, having studied the evidence, concluded that this accusation was bogus and none of the “convincing evidence” held up to scrutiny.

This case may become the first documented capital punishment case in Texas (with shock-waves throughout the other US states still clinging to capital punishment) where a factually and legally innocent person has been put to death. Hopefully it will give the opposition to capital punishment enough ammunition to win their case.

The case highlights the risk of, and pitfalls caused by intellectual arrogance, even hubris, of the technical expert (arson investigator), and the serious damage it can cause. Here they were practitioners, but the same hubris aflicts professionals from academia as well - see the sure-footedness of economists explaining the markets over the last years. Engineers, relying on the “laws of nature”, as like to justify their findings, must be aware that this is not as simple as it sounds, and that the deduction of cause and effect always involves human logic, which may be fallible let alone being misguided by religious beliefs, such as advocating “intelligent design”). Lawyers face the same challenge, as they may easily misjudge the applicability of a rule to given facts.

All are prone to lack of rigor, to intellectual lethargy and reliance on the maxim: “that’s how we always did it”, instead of questioning the obvious, checking assumptions.

But the case also demonstrates the power, benefits and striking result of rigorous scientific research, relying on measured experiments and careful analysis. This approach freed another inmate from death row in a very similar arson case. Unfortunately it came too late for the accused in question here.

Hans-Werner Wabnitz
Dr. Jur. (Freiburg) LL.M. (Tulane. NO La)
HW at

Friday, November 06, 2009

Willingham's trial and the state of the art of forensic fire science

Via an op-ed article in the New York Times, I learnt about the story of Cameron Willingham.

The State of Texas executed Mr Willingham in 2004 for the deaths of his three children by arson at their family home. An arson investigation by Dr Craig Beyler conducted in 2009 says that there was no scientific evidence what so ever that the house fire was intentionally set but that all revised evidence points that it was an accidental fire. It is terrifying that the State of Texas may have executed an innocent man.

This is an upsetting and horrible story, from many points of view, but the one related to this blog is fire science. I think many people will also find it a required case study for those working in fire, to learn from past mistakes, improve the field and avoid repeating it at all costs.

The story is best told in this recent article by David Grann in The New Yorker:
*Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?*. There is also a summary video and an audio commentary.

Dr Guillermo Rein

PD: The governor of Texas has replaced three members of that commission and is still saying in interviews that Willingham's execution was appropriate.

PPD: a community of about 30 volunteers has already been working on a public version of the events in wikipedia.

PPPD: The on-going case of Kevin Sweeney in the Netherlands is scarily similar to Willingham's. This case could be an accidental smouldering fire, which is my research expertise. I know first hand about the inability of many fire experts to see the importance of smouldering as the initiation event to a later flaming fire. That despite smouldering being the leading cause of fire deaths in residential areas in US and other western countries.

PPPPD: An important reading on the state of forensic science is the US National Academies report. A shorter piece that offers similar criticisms is in Popular mechanics.