Computer Models Fail to Predict Path of Flames

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 16, 2015 | Go to article overview

Computer Models Fail to Predict Path of Flames


Byline: Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Wildfires that have raged in California this summer haven't just overwhelmed firefighters -- they've also stumped computer models designed to predict the intensity of flames and where they'll burn.

"These fires are actually exceeding what our models will even predict," said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

While rapidly spreading wildfires exacerbated by four years of drought may have made wildfires harder to forecast, others suggest modeling methods haven't kept up to speed with technology.

Modeling has been a primary tool for nearly 40 years for fire managers to plot where a fire will run and help plan where they should deploy firefighters, dig containment lines, fly water- and retardant-dropping aircraft and order evacuations. But it's not an exact science, and it is often only as good as the expert doing the analysis and a little trial and error.

Modeling experts who work for fire agencies take variables such as vegetation type, humidity, temperature and terrain and plug them into a computer program to create virtual fires and see how they progress. Forecasts are usually created twice a day and shared with managers on the ground to make tactical decisions that day and plan for days ahead.

"It's imperfect. Sometimes it's spooky right. Other times you miss the mark," said Rick Stratton, a fire analyst for the U.S. Forest Service. "More often than not, the science, I don't want to say it's right, but it helps make a risk-informed decision."

Fires this summer have been growing bigger faster, and that's one factor that could be making modeling harder, said Tim Sexton, a program manager with the Forest Service.

Over the weekend, a fire in Lake County torched more than 60 square miles in 12 hours, destroying nearly 600 homes, killing a woman trapped in her Cobb Mountain home and sending thousands fleeing down flame-lined roads. In the same general area north of California's Wine Country, the so-called Rocky Fire erupted in late July, destroying 43 homes and spreading over 100 square miles.

CalFire ran models hundreds of times that could not replicate its rapid growth, Pimlott said.

To some, that's because the model is outdated and doesn't accurately account for the often turbulent weather created by the fire itself, which includes fierce winds not foreseen in daily forecasts.

"I think their technology is so outdated and what they're modeling is so complex," said Janice Coen, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. …

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