Ignited by a faulty electric transmission line in November 2018, the Camp Fire burned for 17 days in Butte County, near the city of Paradise, Calif. When the blaze was finally contained, it had burned more than 150,000 acres, destroyed 18,000 buildings and taken 86 lives.
The question is if the fire could have been predicted and if the damage could have been minimized through greater understanding of risk factors. Also if there is a scientific way to reduce the risk of fires, analogous to advances already made in the areas of earthquake risk assessment and disaster resilience.
Those are some of the questions facing new research being undertaken by scientists at several institutions and financed through a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s LEAP-HI program. LEAP-HI is “Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure.”
Diverse Team of researchers
The new initiative will bring together a diverse team that includes atmospheric scientists, civil engineers, information systems and technology, fire ecology, weather systems, structural and fire engineering, and computer vision and machine learning.
The vision of the research is “a computational platform for multi-level wildfire risk assessment.” The researchers seek to redefine wildfire risk monitoring and management to provide a platform that can be used by wildfire managers, emergency responders and utility companies to plan for, respond to, and mitigate the risk of wildfires.
Hopefully, the research can lower the probability the world would suffer from another wildfire of the magnitude of the Camp Fire. The new capabilities could help to offset the growing trend of wildfire danger: Over the last 20 years, on average, seven million acres of U.S. land have burned in wildfires annually.
Fire risks at regional and community scales
The new computational platform will make wildfire management processes more efficient
The “interdisciplinary intervention” will build a digital platform to monitor the risk of wildfire “on a spectrum of spatial resolution and time.” The new computational platform will make wildfire management processes more efficient by providing actionable information to decision-makers. Data will include long-term to short-term pre-ignition fire risks at regional and community scales, and post-ignition fire behavior at near-real-time for situational awareness.
Computational modeling will be used to interpret data assembled by the group of researchers applying a variety of expertise to the larger problem.
The systematic framework will quantify the risk of wildfires to the wildland-urban-interface communities in terms of total probability of loss, which includes a combination of monetary damage and the change in the quality of life of people. The model will take into account characteristics such as the community, its structure and location; as well as the adjacent wildland, its topography, climate conditions, fuel type and moisture.
Hamed Ebrahimian, Assistant Professor at the University of Las Vegas, Reno, Nevada, College of Engineering, will lead the research as the principal investigator. Moved by the tragedy of the Camp Fire, Ebrahimian is seeking a better way to understand fire risk.
The project will also involve researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), Reno, Nevada; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); University at Buffalo (N.Y.); National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado (NCAR); and the University of Nevada, Reno, Colleges of Science and Business.
Predicting the behavior of fire
Tools used in the research will be integrating scientific knowledge across disciplines, data harnessing (collection, processing, fusion, and uncertainty quantification); computational modeling, stochastic simulation, and model-based inference (i.e., making predictions based on calculations). (Stochastic simulation addresses variables that can change randomly with individual probabilities.)
Computations that help to predict how active fires will behave and propagate will be instrumental in helping ground-zero firefighting activities.