Fighting Fires with Models: Wildfire Growth Combated with New Forecast Method

First Posted: Nov 15, 2013 09:01 AM EST

Wildfires are continues to increase as the climate changes. In fact, some studies have pointed to the fact that the wildfire seasons may be about three weeks longer, twice as smoky and will burn a larger area in western states by 2050. Now, scientists have taken the next step when it comes to predicting these fires. They've developed a new computer modeling technique that offers the promise of producing continually updated daylong predictions of wildfire growth throughout the lifetime of long-lived blazes.

The new technique is crucial as our environment continues to promote wildfire spread. It combines cutting-edge simulations portraying the interaction of weather and fire behavior with newly available satellite observations of active wildfires. Updated with new observations every 12 hours, the computer model can give researchers critical details about a fire's behavior.

In fact, this model wasn't possible before now. The kind of real-time data that's needed to regularly update the model hasn't been available. Satellite instruments only offered coarse observations of fires, providing images in which each pixel represented an area a little more than half a mile across. While these images might show several places burning, they could not distinguish the boundaries between burning and non-burning areas. That's why the scientists produced higher-resolution fire detection data from a new satellite instrument, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).

"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 Janice Coen, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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."

This new method will be particularly useful for firefighters. It could anticipate sudden blowups and shifts in the direction of the flames, such as what happened when 19 firefighters died in Arizona last summer. In addition, the technique could enable decision makers to look at several newly ignited fires and decide which pose the greatest threat.

"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," said Coen in a news release. "Many people have resigned themselves to believing that wildfires are unpredictable. We're showing that's not true."

The findings are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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