When freak lightning storms passed over Northern California’s wine country last month and sparked hundreds of wildfires, a newly established network of remote weather stations, orbiting satellites and supercomputers spun into action and attempted to predict the spread of what is now known as the LNU Lightning Complex fire.
Firefighters and technologists have long dreamed of a formula or device that would accurately predict the spread of fire, much the way meteorologists predict the possible impact of extreme weather, but it’s only recently that big data and supercomputers have begun to show promise as a means of fire forecasting.
“I think a firefighter starting out today in his or her career, they’re going to see something to the point where they leave the [station] on the fire, they’ll have a simulation on their screen of where the fire is going to go, where they need to do evacuations,” said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst with Cal Fire since 2000.
Past forecasts relied on huge assumptions about the landscape and upcoming weather, but today’s forecasts are based on a web of remote weather stations, cameras and satellites merged with ground-level details on vegetation and moisture. Now California firefighters and the state’s largest power utilities are hoping these networks will help them to better plan evacuations and more precisely target power shutoffs in times of emergency.
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