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  • USA: mapping a wildfire's next move is getting easier, thanks to computers

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USA: mapping a wildfire's next move is getting easier, thanks to computers

Source(s):  Computer Network (CNET)

By Laura Hautala


Programmers have been using software to analyze wildland fires and eventually make projections of where they might spread next, since computers came into existence. But following the fire at Hungry Horse, which was part of the larger Blackfoot Lake Complex Fire, the software programs written by government agencies and private companies for fire response teams have become more efficient and precise. Researchers are now creating systems that will more accurately predict fire movement, sometimes several days into the future, while computing labs are streamlining the way crucial information about fires is shared in real time. First responders can then adjust their projections within minutes -- rather than hours -- giving firefighters more time to respond to a blaze and stop it from spreading.


More fire in the future


There are two reasons why wildfire emergencies are becoming more common: population and climate.

"People are living more in places prone to fire," Sullivan says. "But changes to the climate are exposing more areas to the likelihood of fire."

Climate change and fires are now caught in a feedback loop. Rising global temperatures make fires more likely because they extend dry seasons and create drier plant life that's more likely to burn in hotter weather. Fires in turn release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and remove carbon-neutralizing trees from the environment.

Software can't stop either of these factors, but it can make fire responders more nimble and help moderate the damage.


Updating the program

Fire scientists are now working on programs that predict the spread of fires based on the principles of computational fluid dynamics. This area of physics looks at how atmospheric forces play off one another at the molecular level, pushing at each other while transferring heat and physical matter around the environment. Unlike waves, these are the real physical forces that make fires burn, grow and move.

But since heavy computing power is required to run these physics-based programs, they still aren't ready for prime time. As a result, fire scientists have looked to new programming techniques to get faster and more precise predictions from programs like Farsite, or the Australian equivalent, Phoenix RapidFire.


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  • Publication date 04 Sep 2020

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