Firefighters get high tech to douse wildfires

Wildfires can destroy thousands of acres quickly. A gust of wind can quickly push the fire in another direction. But firefighters may be able to get the jump on wildfires with new technology.

University of California San Diego computer scientists stitch together information from weather sensors and satellite images to predict where wildfires are moving in real time. All of the images and data is fed into a supercomputer and creates a network of real-time wildfire information. Their cyber infrastructure system, called WIFIRE, analyzes the information to forecast where the fire will move while it is burning.

Knowing where the fire will spread could stop it in its tracks.

“The quicker we can get that information, the quicker firefighters can make that decision,” said Ilkay Altintas, a computer scientist at University of California San Diego who is heading the WIFIRE project.

The network is currently being tested in San Diego County, but it could spread internationally. Computer scientist Larry Smarr with the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information Technology hopes the WIFIRE technology will make forecasting wildfires as common as predicting the development of other major storms.

“Imagine that you could have a detailed model of a wildfire path and you could actually compute the progress of the flames faster than real time and provide advanced warning to the first responders,” he said.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has more on this story for the National Science Foundation series “Science Nation.”*

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Support PBS NewsHour: