Fighting Fires With Models

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Spoiler: this is not about fashion models fighting fires, but a special weather model blended with new satellite-supported simulations of fire behavior which will help firefighters predict fire behavior in real time. That’s what researchers reported yesterdy: a new technique that could save lives.

“With this technique, we believe it’s possible to continually issue good forecasts throughout a fire’s lifetime, even if it burns for weeks or months,” said National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Janice Coen, the lead model developer and lead author of a paper about the new model in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters. “This model, which combines interactive weather prediction and wildfire behavior, could greatly improve forecasting—particularly for large, intense wildfire events where the current prediction tools are weakest.”

PHOTOS: Fire Crews Battle Rim Fire

As the image above shows, the new approach provides vastly higher resolution information about a fire than the previous technique by using data from the new satellite instrument called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which is jointly operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). VIIRS is able to cover the whole planet every 12 hours and makes pictures in which pixels are equivalent to 1,200 feet (375 meters) across. Add to this another tool developed by Coen, a weather model called the Coupled Atmosphere-Wildland Fire Environment computer model, and you have a powerful new way to see what’s going on in a blaze.

In a live test of the technique on the three-week-long 2012 Little Bear Fire in New Mexico, the new technique enabled Coen and her collaborator Wilfrid Schroeder, of the University of Maryland, to create a picture and understanding of the active fire every 12 hours in much more detail than was ever previously possible. Currently firefighters have tools that are only able to estimate the speed of the leading edge of a fire and can’t predict how weather and fire will interact.

“The transformative event has been the arrival of this new satellite data,” said Schroeder. “The satellite data has tremendous potential to supplement fire management and decision support systems, sharpening the local, regional, and continental monitoring of wildfires.”

PHOTOS: Life in a Drop of Water

The technique could very well prevent tragedies like the deaths of 19 firefighters this summer in Arizona, which happened when the fire blew up and changed direction.

“Lives and homes are at stake, depending on some of these decisions, and the interaction of fuels, terrain, and changing weather is so complicated that even seasoned managers can’t always anticipate rapidly changing conditions,” Coen explained. “Many people have resigned themselves to believing that wildfires are unpredictable. We’re showing that’s not true.”

IMAGE: The image at left was produced from data generated by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, which uses pixels a bit over half a mile (1 km) across to see a fire in Brazil last March. On the right is the same fire as seen by the new VIIRS instrument, which has pixels that are 1,200 feet (375 meters) across. Image courtesy Wilfrid Schroeder, University of Maryland.

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