2017 Magazine - Gold

Douglas Fox took readers inside the dangerous and unpredictable behavior of wildfires, describing the audacious steps one team of researchers took to better understand the anatomy of a monster fire burning in southern Idaho in August 2016. An instrument-laden light aircraft penetrated the towering smoke plume of the fire, registering an 80 mile per hour updraft of hot, buoyant air, followed by a turbulent downdraft. Only aloft, some scientists say, can researchers start to really understand how a wildfire “breathes” and moves across the landscape. That may open new avenues for monitoring fires and predicting their behavior. From the bomb-induced firestorm in Hamburg, Germany during World War II to the most recent wildfires in the American West and elsewhere, Fox takes a detailed look at the dynamics of catastrophic fires (two fires 10 miles apart can travel in opposite directions) and explains why new insights on plume behavior may help researchers see beyond the chaotic veneer of a wildfire to discern underlying, more predictable forces that guide its behavior. Kate Lunau of Motherboard called Fox’s story “an extremely timely, important investigation of the science of wildfires.” Fox previously won the award in 2009 in the children’s science news category.