Fighting Fires with Technology

Great article about this from the New York Times.

An excerpt.

LOS ANGELES — As out-of-control wildfires in the West grow more frequent and more intense, fire departments in Southern California are looking to big data and artificial intelligence to enhance the way they respond to these disasters.

The marriage of computing, brawn and speed, they hope, may help save lives.

“In Los Angeles, with our population density, a fire is going to be burning houses down right away,” said Ralph Terrazas, the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. “There’s smoke, there’s fire, there’s sirens, and we have to make decisions in just minutes.”

With that urgency in mind, for about 18 months the department has been testing a program developed by the WiFire Lab at the San Diego Supercomputer Center that makes fast predictions about where active fires will spread next. The program, known as FireMap, pulls together real-time information about topography, flammable materials and weather conditions, among other variables, from giant government data sets and on-the-ground sensors.

When firefighters across the city are dispatched to respond to brush fires, the department’s leaders at headquarters now run the WiFire program as part of their initial protocol. Then, WiFire’s servers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center in La Jolla crunch the numbers, and the program turns out a predictive map of the fire’s expected trajectory. Those maps can then be transmitted electronically from headquarters to incident commanders on the ground.

Wildfires are still won and lost through grueling, terrifying work in the field, and some fires simply move too quickly for firefighters to contain, with or without a supercomputer. But fire chiefs in the region believe the predictive technology could provide an extra tool when they need to make decisions quickly.

The program can make sophisticated calculations in minutes that would take hours to run manually, said Ilkay Altintas, the chief data science officer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The algorithm takes into account forecasts from the National Weather Service, vegetation readouts from the United States Department of Interior, and even satellite data from NASA, among other data.

Retrieved June 25, 2019 from



About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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