Predictive Fire-Mapping App Helps Los Angeles Fire Department in Battle

The WiFire app is meant to support experts by providing key information in a matter of minutes.

by / November 8, 2016
CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. AP Photo/Josh Edelson

Stretches of dry land, gusty winds and triple-digit heat. In Southern California, that’s a recipe for wildfires with the capacity to do major damage. That’s why the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) has decided to go hi-tech with the recent launch of an innovative predictive fire-mapping app to help them stay one step ahead of the flames. 

The University of California at San Diego’s Super Computer Lab developed the WiFire app in 2012 as a way to use data for wildfire analysis. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the tool uses weather system data to quickly generate a map that predicts the potential direction a fire may go. 

When LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas read about the development in an in-flight magazine, he jumped at the opportunity to get involved. Together, the Super Computer Lab and the LAFD have partnered to perfect the app, officially rolling it out a few months ago. 

Here’s how it works: When the LAFD gets a notification about a fire, the dispatch center pinpoints the location on a map. From there, the app runs a model on the super computer, taking into account all weather station factors like wind, current weather, typography and nearby fuel to calculate a predictive analysis. That information is then shared throughout the department to support decision-making on how to best condense and extinguish the fire. 

Assistant Fire Chief Carlos Calvillo notes that the app is a perfect tool for the Southern California area.

“In the city, we’re faced with a large urban and wild land interface — more than most parts of the state,” he said. “Some of the most damaging fires haven’t been from the amount of real estate that’s been burned, but the number of structures that have been destroyed. With this app, within a very short period of time, we’re able to use technology to help us make critical decisions that will be able to happen immediately. That becomes very powerful when making such big decisions.”

lkay Altintas, chief data science officer at the San Diego Super Computer Center, was involved in developing the app, and said the tool is meant to support experts by providing key information in a matter of minutes.

“It’s a good planning tool as well. Land management authorities can use it for analysis,” she said. “After the fire, the information can be used to see what the situation was like and learn from the fire and be used prior to the fires to train firefighters on environmental conditions and how it will affect fire behavior.”

While the LAFD is still in the process of training chief officers on how to use the app, the department plans to have all officers fully trained by next fire season. What’s more, Cavillo predicts that this app will be seen in more departments across the nation and eventually will become the norm when it comes to fighting and preventing fires.

“Technology will continue to be part of the fire service and the change that is happening in the industry, and this will help to make critical decisions for our officers,” he said. “Opportunities are great when we have partnerships like this with the fire department and the private sector, where you join forces to develop something great like this.”

Julia McCandless Contributing Writer

Julia McCandless is a journalist passionate about finding the story and telling it well. She currently works as a freelance journalist and communications expert in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and son.