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New Computer Model To Predict Path Of Forest Fires

In a first, scientists have developed a new computer modelling technique that may produce continually updated day-long predictions of wildfire growth throughout the lifetime of long-lived blazes.

The technique, devised by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research ( NCAR) and the University of Maryland, combines cutting-edge simulations portraying the interaction of weather and fire behaviour with newly available satellite observations of active wildfires.

Updated with new observations every 12 hours, the computer model predicts critical details such as the extent of the blaze and changes in its behaviour.

"With this technique, we believe it's possible to continually issue good forecasts throughout a fire's lifetime, even if it burns for weeks or months," said Janice Coen, lead author and model developer.

"This model, which combines interactive weather prediction and wildfire behaviour, could greatly improve forecasting--particularly for large, intense wildfire events where the current prediction tools are weakest," said Coen.

Firefighters currently use tools that can estimate the speed of the leading edge a fire but are too simple to capture crucial effects caused by the interaction of fire and weather.

The researchers successfully tested the new technique by using it retrospectively on the 2012 Little Bear Fire in New Mexico, which burned for almost three weeks and destroyed more buildings than any other wildfire in the state's history.

Wilfrid Schroeder, from the University of Maryland, produced higher-resolution fire detection data from a new satellite instrument, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).

This new tool provides coverage of the entire globe at intervals of 12 hours or less, with pixels about 1,200 feet across. The higher resolution enabled the researchers to outline the active fire perimeter in much greater detail.

The researchers said that forecasts using the new technique could be particularly useful in anticipating sudden blowups and shifts in the direction of the flames.

The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
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