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WIFIRE program aims to predict wildfire behavior, share information with firefighters

WIFIRE program aims to predict wildfire behavior, share information with firefighters
UC San Diego's Ilkay Altintas is leading WIFIRE's research. (Photo by Erik Jepsen)

Researchers at UC San Diego are hot on the trail of a solution to unpredictable wildfires. WIFIRE — a portmonteau of "Wi-Fi" and "fire" — is a National Science Foundation-funded program that uses data from satellites, sensors and an extensive computer network to create simulations that predict fire behavior.

Researchers hope that WIFIRE will provide firefighters with up-to-the-minute data to help them determine where to order water drops from firefighting aircraft, where to clear away fire-prone vegetation, and where to station engines and brush rigs for maximum effect. With the wind speeds and directions that affect wildfires changing in an instant, the power of prediction can prove revolutionary for fire officials.

Stopping fire in its tracks

WIFIRE is headed by UC San Diego and involves the university's San Diego Supercomputer Center, Qualcomm Institute at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology and Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, as well as the University of Maryland's Department of Fire Protection Engineering. The consortium just wrapped up the first year of a three-year, $2.65-million project to put this technology to use in fire departments throughout California.


UC San Diego's Ilkay Altintas is leading WIFIRE's research. She is the director of the Workflows for Data Science Center of Excellence at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and a lecturer in the department of computer science and engineering at UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering.

"Our ultimate goal is to provide the firefighting and emergency services community with vital information about a wildfire, where it is heading and how it will behave," Altintas said. "In the end, this will help save lives and property."

Being able to create and frequently update incident maps is critical in tracking a fire's spread and determining evacuations and unit assignments, according to a San Diego city report on the 2007 wildfires in San Diego County that burned more than 370,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,600 homes and killed seven people.

The San Diego connection — and beyond

How did the research land at UC San Diego? "We are a very wired county," Altintas said. In part that's because it's home to the UC San Diego-based High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network, which was founded in 2000 with National Science Foundation funding. The network comprises a bevy of cameras and meteorological sensors throughout the region that can send real-time data to the La Jolla campus.

Take that network, add satellite and weather data, apply large-scale computing, and researchers believe they'll soon better be able to more effectively predict wildfire behavior.

Data collection is currently limited, but Altintas expects that to change with the increasing use of drones and other emerging tools. In August 2013, for example, firefighters used a drone to collect data during the 257,000-acre Rim Fire near Yosemite. Equipped with sensors and infrared cameras that can detect heat sources, the pilotless aircraft enabled commanders to better map out a firefight.

"By flying a drone over a fire you could collect a ton of data," Altintas said.

Assessing how a wildfire will behave isn't the only benefit that WIFIRE is expected to yield. Data collected from past fires will help researchers better forecast all kinds of fire behavior in similar conditions worldwide.

David Ogul, Brand Publishing Writer