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New Simulation Technology Helps Get the Jump on Wildfires

CAL FIRE is deploying a new modeling technology in three phases this year to collect and analyze weather and fuel data, providing fire managers with a model of the potential actions of a fire in real time.

by Jim McKay / October 2, 2020
MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 9, 2018 - - A firefighter tries to put out the flames on a burning home from the Woolsey fire on Dume Drive in Malibu on November 9, 2018. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times) TNS

The Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit (LNU) wildfires in California burned nearly 200,000 acres before finally being contained. But in the process, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) was able to deploy a simulation technology that helps firefighters predict the actions of a wildfire and deploy resources more quickly where needed. 

The data has always been available, but only within silos and compiling that data traditionally took hours or days. The technology, developed by Technosylva, was partially deployed by CAL FIRE in July during the LNU fires and showed a rapid spread of the wildfire. 

“We’re rolling it out over a three-phased implementation period,” said Christine McMorrow, CAL FIRE resource management communications officer. “Our first phase went live July 31 in four fire units at our training centers and regional and Sacramento command centers.”

Phase two was scheduled to go live Oct. 1 in half of the CAL FIRE units. The final phase will be introduced at the end of the year, McMorrow said. “By the end of the year, all of our units across the state and command centers will have the technology.”

Fuel and weather data is analyzed in real time, creating simulations of the wildfire’s potential movement and providing situational awareness and critical intelligence to fire managers on the ground. 

“It’s pulling together different data sources that fire managers use to make on-the-ground decisions, and it does it in real time, and can be used on a desktop computer and our commanders have it on their smartphones, so it’s very mobile and highly powerful,” McMorrow explained. 

“They’re using it to plan resources, locate where fire lines can get cut within a reasonable time frame, work with the sheriffs' departments on evacuation planning and predict areas where there is the greatest potential for staging and deployment,” she said.

For example, a fire manager arrives on the scene of the fire, punches in their location and the software begins to pull in weather data from the National Weather Service and the location of resources, etc., allowing the manager to develop plans. 

“I think a firefighter starting out today in his or her career, they’re going to see something to the point where they leave the [station] on a fire, they’ll have a simulation on their screen of where the fire is going to go, where they need to do evacuations,” Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst with CAL FIRE, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

Technosylva President Joaquin Ramirez called the technology “young science” but said it’s “on the right track.”

“If the fuels data is good, if the weather data is good and the location is correct, our models provide a good ballpark,” he told The Times

The technology is also being used by the three big electric utilities: Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

“It’s going to have a huge impact for timing,” McMorrow said. “This can do in minutes what it used to take our predictive services hours or days to do. We’re going to be able to get this information and have real-time data about predictions, fire growth and modeling within a few minutes in the palm of our hands.”

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