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Desert Research Institute to Develop Computer Model to Predict and Fight Wildfires

ON 04/01/2022 AT 07:21 AM

As the climate crisis continues to heat up forests in American’s western states, wildfires are now showing up earlier, in larger numbers, and at sizes unimaginable even just a decade ago. A new wildfire modeling tool under development from Nevada’s Desert Research Institute could aid in predicting and fighting those fires in many regions.

Computer model of the 2021 Caldor Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

Screenshot of a simulation of the Caldor Fire created with the weather-fire-smoke model. Green lines indicate wind direction, red and yellow area indicates fire perimeter, and gray cloud represents smoke. The Caldor Fire, situated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, burned approximately 222,000 acrres in October 2021. Photo: Adam Kochanski/San Jose State University and Tim Brown/DRI.

The Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education with facilities in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, will soon create a Weather and Research Forecast advanced modeling tool which simulates weather, fire, and smoke patterns. It will include initial methods of predicting when wildfires may break out and, when they do, will model probable fire growth behaviors and initial prescriptions for operations firefighters cold use to bring the wildfires under control as quickly as possible.

The initial target forests to be modeled under this simulation will be in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which span both Nevada and California.The core technology should be directly applicable to other forest ranges, however.

This phase of the project is supported by a $150,000 grant from the NV Energy Foundation.

Forecasts and simulations produced by this model will be available to NV Energy’s fire mitigation team, and other professionals from the prescribed fire and air quality communities in Nevada and California through the work of the California and Nevada Smoke and Air Committee (CANSAC).

“We are committed to protecting our customers and the environment from the increasing risks of natural disasters, which include wildfires,” said Doug Cannon, NV Energy president and chief executive officer. “The NV Energy Foundation is proud to support DRI in the development of this technology that will help firefighters better assess fire risk and keep our communities safe.”

Funds from the new NV Energy Foundation grant will be used to expand the current high-performance computer system that is used by CANSAC. The system will provide an interface where users such as prescribed fire managers can conduct simulations of fire spread and smoke behavior.

The model will allow for risk assessment of specific locations by modeling different burn scenarios, help meteorologists identify small-scale wind flows that could have adverse effects on fire spread and behavior, and provide critical air quality forecasts for wildfires or burn day decisions. Simulations can be run for near future forecasting (a few days out) or longer-term scenario modeling for projects that might occur a year or more into the future.

“This tool will be useful to wildfire fighting operations as well as for prescribed fire planning, which is essential to getting some of our fire-adapted ecosystems back into balance,” said Tim Brown, Ph.D., director of DRI’s Western Regional Climate Center. “By supporting the development of this tool, the NV Energy Foundation is providing a great resource to fire managers in Nevada and California and helping to ensure the safety of firefighters and communities across these two states."

“With this generous grant, the NV Energy Foundation will play a key role in developing new technology that will be used to solve real-world problems in fire mitigation and fire safety,” said DRI President Kumud Acharya, Ph.D. “This project is an amazing example of how community organizations like NV Energy can partner with DRI scientists to develop solutions to the problems that face our society and environment.”

This project is supported by additional funds from the State of Nevada’s Capacity Building Program and DRI internal funding.