ATF Fire Research Laboratory for Washingtonian

ATFlab_01 ATFlab_02 ATFlab_03 ATFlab_04I’m gonna start this post by saying I’m a life-long pyro.  I love fire.  It terrified and fascinated me as a child.  I used to watch episodes of Rescue 911 and I would pay extra close attention to the house fire segments so that I would know what to do when it happened to me.  I was pretty sure our house was going to burn down someday.  Thankfully it never did (no thanks to me setting shit on fire all the time) and I grew up to be a photographer whose secret all-time favorite subject was the furious, beautiful destructive force that has fueled civilization from the start.  When Washingtonian called me up to do a shoot at the ATF Fire Research Laboratory, I rescheduled another shoot so I could do it.  Located in Beltsville, MD, it is the world’s largest fire-science lab, and it is really, really, really cool.  ATFlab_05This is John Allen, the Fire Research Laboratory Chief.  His business card was singed on one corner, making it the best business card a subject has ever handed me.  In the left photo, he’s standing in a reconstructed model of a room that will be set ablaze.  The lab is a forensic facility and they investigate arson.  Scenes are meticulously reconstructed over the course of investigations and the large burn room is so big that they can build and burn a full house.  ATFlab_06A cell is prepped for a drywall burn test.  A few stuffed animals were placed in front of it to demonstrate to me and the writer how fire can spread through heat alone.  The Shrek doll did not survive.ATFlab_07Monitoring station. Science.ATFlab_08It starts out small enough.ATFlab_09But it accelerates quickly.ATFlab_10And it is so beautiful.ATFlab_11These guys are super nonchalant about the whole thing.  It is a controlled burn, after all.  I, on the other hand, was beginning to have an animal freak-out.  The heat and smoke triggered a small adrenaline rush and as the smoke line descended lower and lower, I had to steady my breathing to stay focused on taking pictures.  Every fiber of my being was screaming “get the fuck out of this room because it is on fire.”  I’ve shot wildfires before, but something about being in an enclosed space with it is very different.ATFlab_12The smoke line got pretty low very quickly and visibility was reduced.ATFlab_13 ATFlab_14There is a giant smoke hood (like above your stovetop but several thousand times larger) in the burn room and after they extinguished the fire, it wasn’t long before things were back to normal.ATFlab_15Investigation.ATFlab_16This is a big-ass industrial filter-machine-amabob that keeps all the smoke the facility produces from choking the locals.  It’s all very state of the art.ATFlab_17ATFlab_18Fire math.ATFlab_19This is some lab guy’s idea of decor.  A bit morbid, but fitting.

me Me before and after.IMG_5079Brilliant.