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A fire burning in a forest



Fire testing may have started some 2.5 million years ago when one of our ancestors stuck his hand into the first flame and “scientifically” determined that the temperature was too hot to bear. Since that primitive beginning, humans have been on an unending quest to understand, measure and exploit the behavior of fire—and most importantly, to improve our ability to protect life and property from its ravages. Fire testing at NIST, a staple of the agency’s research since the early 1900s, has helped provide much of the data, insights and knowledge demanded by that pursuit. Research has run covered everything from fire safety engineering and fire fighting to fire investigation and fire testing to fire data management and intentional burning.

Key Accomplishments

  • Fire reconstructions: NIST thoroughly investigates some of the country’s most unique and devastating wildland-urban interface (WUI) and building fires, such as the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire. By studying and reconstructing the behavior and timeline of these fires in detail, NIST makes recommendations, some of which have led to improved codes and standards related to fuel load, sprinklers, egress and other fire safety considerations. 
  • Materials flammability: From building materials on the WUI to furniture in the common home, NIST devises test methods and mitigation strategies for reducing the flammability of numerous materials. NIST’s research in this area has bolstered state and federal standards and, in the case of mattress flammability, had a measurable lifesaving impact
  • Fire modeling: NIST developed and continues to update advanced fire modeling software capable of digitally recreating complex fire and smoke behaviors. These free tools have played key roles in cracking forensic cases of residential and industrial fires and supporting studies on and the design of fire protection systems.  
  • Smoke detection: For decades, NIST has rigorously tested smoke alarms and detectors, like those used in many homes (and in space), to raise the bar for their performance. NIST’s work in this area laid the groundwork for several standards for the sensitivity and installation of these vital technologies.

The Research

Projects & Programs

Safety of Building Occupants Project

NIST will develop a model to predict evacuation decision-making during fires through a better understanding and quantification of the risk perceived by

Design Fires for Structures Project

This project will address upcoming needs and take advantage of new resources associated with the completion of National Fire Research Laboratory (NFRL). The

Additional Resources Links


Knocking Down Fences for Fire Research

Wildfires don’t stop where the wilderness ends. They burn through communities and neighborhoods, destroying property and taking lives. In 2018, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection alone reported 7,948 wildfire incidents, burning almost 2 million acres across the state and resulting in 100 confirmed fatalities and 24,226 structures damaged or destroyed. NIST researchers are at

John W. Lyons, Who Led NIST in Times of Great Change, Dies at 93

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