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  • Wildfire-Technology

    By JOSEPH B. VERRENGIA
    AP Science Writer
    Frustrated scientists carry an extra burden as they watch
    wildfires torch southern California: Days ago, their instruments
    told them this destruction would happen.
    But once the fires ignited, their computers could not forecast
    where or how long the fires would burn, or suggest where fire crews
    might contain their spread.
    Researchers say it will be several years before computer
    programs will accurately forecast fire behavior the way TV
    weathermen tell viewers where a hurricane or a blizzard is heading.
    "Last Friday, we saw there would be very high winds over the
    Simi Valley and San Diego," said geographer Dar Roberts, principal
    investigator at the Southern California Wildfire Hazard Center at
    the University of California-Santa Barbara.
    By Tuesday fires had erupted in the area.
    "It's a scary moment because you know that if somebody starts a
    fire, it's going to be tough," Roberts said. "We could see this
    happening."
    Researchers at several universities and the National Interagency
    Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, integrate information about weather,
    fire dangers and available fire crews. Their reports go to
    government land managers and city public safety departments,
    especially in fire-prone western and southern states.
    In addition to weather reports and data from hundreds of
    automated ground-based climate stations, they use atmospheric
    computer models that predict conditions above likely fire spots.
    As fires burn, the agencies send updates on key factors, such as
    when the Santa Ana winds might let up.
    But what about whether a fire will jump a river or crest a
    certain hillside in the next hour? Should a neighborhood be
    evacuated? For those strategic decisions, fire managers cannot turn
    to scientists and computers.
    They still must rely on their own experience and frontline
    reports from exhausted "ground-pounders" - their fire crews armed
    with shovels and pickaxes.
    Computer simulations of fires are "an extremely valuable tool
    for lessons learned that can be applied to future fires, but it is
    not an operational model," said Rich Wagoner of the National
    Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
    Today's best wildfire models are so complicated they run only on
    supercomputers normally reserved for calculations related to global
    warming and nuclear weapons simulations.
    They are called "coupled models" because they combine data
    about the atmosphere and weather with data on fire conditions, such
    as elevation and soil and plant moisture.
    But models bog down on the details that really determine a
    fire's behavior. Such as, whether a mountain slope is cool and
    facing north, or warm and facing south. Or, whether the 60 mph
    winds are gusty or constant. Or finer details, such as the
    dimensions of leaves and needles on specific plants.
    The best models crudely simulate wildfire over about a
    half-square-mile. Want finer resolution? The models' accuracy drops
    to an area equal to a few football fields.
    And there is the speed issue. Supercomputers operate at
    trillions of calculations per second, but they can't keep pace with
    wildfires, which create their own hurricane-force winds at blast
    furnace temperatures.
    "It takes several days to run a model to get an hour or two of
    forecast," Wagoner said.
    Scientists say it will cost $25 million over five years to
    develop a faster, portable wildfire model.
    In September, researchers at NACR and the Rochester Institute of
    Technology won a $300,000 federal grant to begin translating
    remote-sensing data and satellite photographs into "mini-movies"
    predicting a wildfire's behavior for 60 minutes. They hope fire
    managers can download the animations on laptop computers at the
    scene of a blaze.
    ---
    On the Net: NCAR: http://box.mmm.ucar.edu/fire/firehome.html
    U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/eng/rsac/
    Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

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