USA: Can 'big data' help fight big fires? Firefighters are betting on it
By Jose A. Del Real
With that urgency in mind, for about 18 months the [Los Angeles Fire Department] has been testing a program developed by the WiFire Lab at the San Diego Supercomputer Center that makes fast predictions about where active fires will spread next. The program, known as FireMap, pulls together real-time information about topography, flammable materials and weather conditions, among other variables, from giant government data sets and on-the-ground sensors.
When firefighters across the city are dispatched to respond to brush fires, the department’s leaders at headquarters now run the WiFire program as part of their initial protocol. Then, WiFire’s servers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center in La Jolla crunch the numbers, and the program turns out a predictive map of the fire’s expected trajectory. Those maps can then be transmitted electronically from headquarters to incident commanders on the ground.
Wildfires are still won and lost through grueling, terrifying work in the field, and some fires simply move too quickly for firefighters to contain, with or without a supercomputer. But fire chiefs in the region believe the predictive technology could provide an extra tool when they need to make decisions quickly.
The program can make sophisticated calculations in minutes that would take hours to run manually, said Ilkay Altintas, the chief data science officer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The algorithm takes into account forecasts from the National Weather Service, vegetation readouts from the United States Department of Interior, and even satellite data from NASA, among other data.