#NSFStories: Fighting fires with supercomputers

By Vincent Tedjasaputra, PhD

Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Tim Werle cranked the temperature up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, tuned the Santa Ana winds to swirl hard from the northeast, and dropped the humidity down to a bone-dry 5%. He carefully picked his target, a mostly uninhabited grasslands preserve just outside San Diego.

Tim Werle
LAFD Capt. Tim Werle at Fire Station 85 in Harbor City, California. Photo Credit: Tim Werle

With a click of his laptop's mouse, he dropped a match into conditions perfect for a disaster. His eyes widened as the brushfire burst angrily across 1,500 acres in just two hours. Looking across the WIFIRE Firemap, a satellite image map overlaid with terrain and access roads, Werle could instantly strategize exactly where to send his crew to get ahead of this fast-moving, simulated blaze, to practice for the real thing.  

The WIFIRE Firemap is a real-time interface that simulates and projects how quickly a real wildfire might spread and can even make projections on how many structures or people might be affected. It currently shows the location and status of every active wildfire in the US, and such advanced computer-based tools are now just as essential as a firehose in the current era of fighting wildfires.

Training test session
At a training test session, Capt. Brian Wall reviews the downlinking capability of command vehicles and capability of field commanders to see live modeling.

When a fire is reported, emergency dispatchers input live data into WIFIRE, such as location, temperature, and wind speed and direction. This technology gathers all of the information in one place, and enables firefighters such as Werle to better target the deployment of fire trucks, planes or digging crews. From the resulting data, dispatchers relay the information within minutes to teams on the ground and in the air. In a firefight, every second matters, and quick response saves lives and homes.   

The ‘crystal-ball’ capability of WIFIRE to crunch all the relevant information in real time is far from magic. This technology, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, is made possible by a cyber-infrastructure that connects real-time weather information, infrared images from fire planes, satellite maps of terrain and brush, and other data to predict what a seemingly fickle wildfire might do next. If you think that’s smart, WIFIRE also learns from past inaccuracies and quickly evolves its ability to predict fires with each bit of new data in real time.  

Using WIFIRE to predict the path of an active wildfire
Battalion Chief Thomas Gikas (left) and Capt. Timothy Werle (right) using the WIFIRE Firemap to predict the path of an active wildfire. Photo Credit: Ilkay Altintas

The deployment of WIFIRE is an incredible confluence of technology, science and old-school firefighter experience, says Werle. The WIFIRE team is led by Ilkay Altintas, an NSF-funded computer scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who uses her expertise in workflow to connect data science with fire science in collaboration with the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Altintas says that the nuts and bolts of the technology behind WIFIRE is the interconnectedness of the inputs. In fact, another NSF-funded project, HPWREN, was the tinder for WIFIRE. It provided inputs for predicting and spotting fires by connecting the existing network of cameras and weather stations scattered throughout San Diego County.  

Altintas says this technology would not be possible without funding from the National Science Foundation. Her team’s work is more relevant than ever as devastating wildfires are occurring more frequently and more intensely because of drastic changes to the climate, and more homes are being built near wooded or grassy areas away from cities.

The WIFIRE research team at UC San Diego
Ilkay Altintas and her WIFIRE research team at UC San Diego. Photo Credit: Altintas Lab, UCSD

Together with local firefighters, the WIFIRE project combines modern technology with years of firefighting know-how to shape the future of emergency wildfire response.  

About the Author

A man in a suit and tie and glasses is smiling
Vincent Tedjasaputra, PhD
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow

Vincent Tedjasaputra, PhD is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at NSF in the Office of the Director, Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. He is a science communicator and public speaking coach. Prior to coming to NSF, Dr. Tedjasaputra studied healthy aging of the lung in his Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. He is a former collegiate track athlete-turned exercise physiologist, earning his Ph.D. in Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, where he studied the pulmonary vascular response to exercise in health and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Outside of science, Vince is a professional vocalist, having sung the Canadian national anthem for collegiate and professional sporting events and performs classically as a lyrical baritone internationally.