When lightning storms passed over Northern California and sparked hundreds of wildfires, a newly established network of remote weather stations, satellites and supercomputers spun into action and attempted to predict the spread of the LNU Lightning Complex fire.
Firefighters and technologists have long dreamed of a formula or device that would accurately predict the spread of fire, but it’s only recently that big data and supercomputers have begun to show promise. “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 the fire, they’ll have a simulation on their screen of where the fire is going to go,” said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst.
Past forecasts relied on huge assumptions about the landscape and upcoming weather, but today’s forecasts are based on a web of remote weather stations, cameras and satellites merged with ground-level details on vegetation and moisture. Now California firefighters and the state’s largest power utilities are hoping these networks will help them to better plan evacuations and more precisely target power shut-offs in times of emergency.
The technology Cal Fire uses, created by La Jolla-based Technosylva, was brought into the department in July under a three-year $8.8-million contract and has yet to be fully rolled out across the agency, spokeswoman Christine McMorrow said. But the program has been used by a handful of Cal Fire analysts who ran simulations.
“We did one for the LNU Complex and it did show a rapid rate of spread,” McMorrow said, referring to what is now the fourth-largest fire in state record books. “They are pleased with what they’re getting from it.”
The state’s big three electric utilities are also using the technology. While the Technosylva software uses data more refined than its competition, experts say the fundamental science behind predicting what a fire will do hasn’t changed, more or less, in half a century. “There’s really only one model that’s used for fire spread models — it’s the Rothermel model,” said Chris Lautenberger, co-founder of fire spread modeling company Reax Engineering. “So what differs from model to model is more the assumptions and approximations that are made.”
The Rothermel model is a mathematical equation established in 1972 by a former General Electric engineer. It models ground fires in light brush and grass, and has become the foundation upon which most fire predictive models were built. “My model has lasted through 50 years because it could do the work,” Richard Rothermel, 90, said. “Now, the problem is people expected it to do far more than it was designed to do.”
With that in mind, officials with all three utilities said that while they’re using fire spread modeling to inform their power shut-offs, it’s not the deciding factor. Edison’s fire scientist, Tom Rolinski, said, “It’s a model, and all models are wrong. We just don’t know where they’re wrong.”