Computer models help in battle against wildfires

Published May 29, 2007

JACKSONVILLE - Firefighters battling Florida's wildfires do not just depend on low-tech tools like bulldozers and hoses - computer models also help them predict where flames will spread and how voracious they will be.

The programs are similar to ones that hurricane forecasters use, and like those models, they are not perfect.

"As good as we think we are and as good as our data is, it's still Mother Nature. I would say we're about 60 to 70 percent right nowadays, whereas 10 years earlier we might have been right about only half the time, " said Vicky Edge, a fire behavior analyst with the Georgia Forestry Commission.

But wildfire crews around the country say the models provide key information on where to build containment lines, order evacuations and send firefighters. The programs use information such as wind speed, humidity and water levels and can simulate air and ground efforts to fight fires.

Before the models were created, much of the work of fire behavior analysts was done by hand, using formulas and algorithms, a long and tedious process. With the programs, thousands of calculations can be done in minutes to produce charts and maps with predictions.

"This is a tool that can tell an experienced fire behavior analyst where a fire is going to go. It is not a silver bullet, " said Jim Brenner, an analyst with Florida's Division of Forestry.

He has used the tools on the wildfires that have charred more than 740 square miles in Florida and Georgia over the past few weeks - an area about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.

Fire Service spokesman Matt Mathes said his agency's California staff has long used the fire-prediction software, but that it's not a replacement for firefighters' judgment.

"All this technology is great, but we still have to rely on the judgment of individual firefighters going through these areas and deciding what is defensible and what is safe to defend, " he said.