USA — With a ferocious wildfire season expected in the parched West, fire forecasters will be without a new technology that scientists say could help predict sudden blowups and shifts in the direction of fires, such as the one that killed 19 firefighters in Yarnell, Ariz., last summer.
The new computer-modeling technique offers the promise for the first time of producing updated predictions of wildfire growth throughout the lifetime of long-lived blazes, according to scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., and the University of Maryland, who developed the model.
Although such predictions wouldn’t prevent wildfires, it could save lives and property and significantly reduce the costs of fires, according to NCAR spokesman David Hosansky. The new model, known as the “Coupled Atmosphere-Wildland Fire Environment” computer model, connects how weather drives fires and, in turn, how fires create their own weather.
“This is absolutely needed and is the technology of the future,” said Bill Mahoney, deputy director of NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory. “However, we’re still waiting for the government to fund its transition from a research to operational capability.”
Indeed, “although many in the fire community want to move forward, no one seems to be able to come up with the money, which is surprising,” Hosansky said. “It would cost $1 million per year over five years to develop the forecasting system,” he claimed.
This compares with a recent average of $3 billion per year in annual wildfire costs, according to a 2013 report The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection by Headwaters Economics, a non-profit research group in Bozeman, Mont. The report cites figures from the Congressional Research Service.
Wildfires are getting larger and causing more damage, the report found, with the six worst fire seasons (since 1960) occurring since 2000. Wildfire protection now accounts for nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service annual budget, and more than 10% of the budget for all Department of the Interior agencies.
Both the Forest Service and the National Weather Service, which are responsible for the forecasting of active wildfires, were contacted for comment about the NCAR research:
Mark Finney, research forester with the Forest Service, said there are no plans to implement the new NCAR model at this time. He added that it’s just one of many models that the Forest Service would use to predict fires; that there is a huge gulf between demonstrating the potential in computer models and having practical applications; and that computer models like this one help with only a narrow slice of the problems and challenges the Forest Service faces in forecasting fire weather and fighting fires.
“The Forest Service and other agencies are not ignoring models,” he added, saying that a business case must be made for new technology such as this, and whether it warrants the investment.
“NCAR’s lack of awareness of the extent and capability of operational fire modeling now used by federal agencies is a bit surprising,” Finney said.
“The National Weather Service has interest in and is continuously exploring model improvements depicting wildfire behavior,” said Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro. “They inform our incident meteorologists that are deployed to the front lines in support of fire suppression activities by partner agencies,” he said.
“Lives and homes are at stake, depending on some of these decisions, and the interaction of fuels, terrain and changing weather is so complicated that even seasoned managers can’t always anticipate rapidly changing conditions,” said NCAR scientist Janice Coen. “Many people have resigned themselves to believing that wildfires are unpredictable. We’re showing that’s not true.”
Mahoney said the best next step would be to create a fire weather “testbed” in the West to further develop the technology and gather feedback from the people who actually make the decisions on the ground.
The research that produced the model was funded by NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Science Foundation, which is the sponsor of NCAR.
A paper about the research appeared last fall in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.