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Big data to head off wildfires

Speed read
  • NSF-funded Firemap is a digital firefighting aid to predict fire spread direction and rate
  • Distributed datasets include vegetation, fire history, weather, satellite imagery, and more
  • Partnership between LAFD and SDSC scientists helped hone the digital tool

The Los Angeles Fire Department is poised to tap into Firemap, a web-based tool that allows data-driven predictive modeling and analysis of fires with a high potential for rapid spread.

Developed by the University of California San Diego's (UCSD‘WIFIRE’ collaboration, the new tool enables real-time fire forecasting and a ‘what if’ analysis of fire scenarios.

<strong>Firemap</strong> harnesses data and predictive models to make the direction and rate of fire spread known as early as possible to assist in rescue and containment efforts. Courtesy University of California San Diego.

The overall goal of WIFIRE, the result of a multi-year US National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, is to make data and predictive models readily available so that the direction and rate of fire spread can be known as early as possible to assist in rescue and containment efforts.

WIFIRE’s Firemap data resource also provides easy access to information on past fires, past and current weather conditions as well as weather forecasts, satellite detections as fast as they are received, HPWREN camera images, and information on vegetation and landscapes from a variety of sources.

These are all datasets that users can now view in one place, achieve programmatic access via web services, and use for planning fire response and management of natural resources well ahead of time.

Firemap has already attracted some interest from a number of fire departments and was recently presented at the 20th Anniversary of the Annual Lake Tahoe Summit, where President Obama gave a keynote address on the importance of partnerships and innovation in tackling our shared climate and conservation challenges.

“WIFIRE is a great example of how distributed data sets can be used within an integrated system to transform that information to action in real time for an effective decision support and response,” says Ilkay Altintas, chief data science officer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UCSD and principal investigator for WIFIRE.

“While all the information we use in WIFIRE existed previously, it wasn’t yet integrated to real-time predictive analyses and modeling in a way the fire community can take advantage of it instantly.”

Since the fall of 2015, the WIFIRE team has had a partnership with the LAFD focused on a pilot study to use WIFIRE’s new Firemap tool in real-time fire situations. The WIFIRE team and LAFD tested the operational aspects of the developed technology on a drill in July 2016.  

In addition, in the Sand, Blue Cut, and Soberanes fires, which burned more than 200,000 acres combined in California earlier this summer, the WIFIRE team shadowed the actual fire progression with Firemap. The comparison between the fires’ actual daily progression and WIFIRE’s real-time prediction model were extremely close.

Fire partners

To be truly vetted and operationally functional, WIFIRE needed a fire department to partner with. Recognizing the opportunity to leverage technology for his commanders making life and death decisions, LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas contacted Altintas to assist with the program development.

<strong>Partners in science. </strong> The Los Angeles Fire Department helped data scientists from UCSD test the WIFIRE Firemap, a tool that harnesses big data to anticipate the rate and direction of wildfire spread. Courtesy University of California San Diego.

“For Incident Commanders (IC), the WIFIRE Firemap is one of the most progressive decision making tools developed in the last decade,” says Terrazas.

“Firemap gives the IC accurate and real-time data to help make command decisions when prioritizing resource allocation or which communities to evacuate. This has never been available during the initial action phase of brush firefighting, and it has been an honor to work with the WIFIRE team and see their dedication to public safety.” 

“We are very excited about our partnership with the LAFD, which enabled our team to work closely with firefighters to test the usefulness of our tools in real time, and helped the WIFIRE team to more effectively calibrate our research protocol in terms of actual operational aspects,” says Altintas.

“Based on this collaboration, we look forward to making our modeling tools and data services available to other fire research, response, and emergency management teams throughout other regions where wildfires pose a significant threat to communities.”


The WIFIRE project includes researchers from SDSC, as well as the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology’s (Calit2) Qualcomm Institute, and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department at the Jacobs School of Engineering. The University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering is also a project participant.

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