Computer Modeling Wildfire

Fire is a commonly used tool in the agriculture industry worldwide. It is a highly effective way of removing the majority of plant cover from a specific region. We have all heard of the environmentally detrimental, slash and burn practices used to clear large tracts of rainforest. Controlled burns can also be used in an ecologically positive manner, to clear invasive weed species and revitalize soils. Fire controlled by people is neither good nor bad from an environmental perspective, it is where and how we use it that determines its ecological validity. But controlled burns are not the only type of fires that can sweep through rural and suburban areas.

Wildfires are uncontrolled conflagrations that may utilize any available fuel source and are directed by the prevailing winds. They are most destructive and potentially deadly when the winds are strong and/or variable and the surrounding land has large amounts of low-level plantlife: scrub and bushes. Even more so if the local climatic conditions have been dry for any extended period of time. When such fires occur near human population centers, the loss of life and the economic cost of property damage can be high. Sometimes very high, as demonstrated in the state of Victoria, Australia on Black Saturday, the 7th of February, 2009, when more than 180 people lost their lives.

Computers are a basic fact of life in all of the developed nations of the world today. No business with more than two or three employees can survive well without them, and we have micro-processors controlling nearly every device in our societies more complicated than a hammer. Therefore, it is no surprise that computer modeling of wildfire parameters is used in those parts of the world prone to such disasters to try to minimize the risk they present. Automated weather stations with satellite uplinks placed strategically throughout regions susceptible to wildfires, whether naturally occurring or due to accidental or deliberate human actions, can provide both historical and immediate information on wind strengths and direction.

Effective wildfire modeling applications need to have access to a database containing the topography (a three-dimensional terrain map) of the area and an up-to-date assessment of its specific ground cover, in combination with the immediate meteorological data, to provide estimates of wildfire actions and directions if it is to be used as a tactical aid in combating wildfires as they are occurring. Such immediate computer modeling of wildfire events is currently still in its infancy.

At this time, wildfire modeling is primarily used to assess fires after they occur, to evaluate the strategic and tactical responses of fire crews and the effectiveness of management decisions made during the event. It is also used to evaluate the susceptibility of specific areas, particularly those with larger human populations or home to endangered species of endemic wildlife.