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Forecasting Dangerous Wildland Fire Behavior

Grant Number: EMW-2015-FP-00888
Principle Investigator: Janice Coen, Ph.D.
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

The Safety Problem. Despite rigorous training and spot weather forecasts, even seasoned responders may not recognize when conditions on the fire ground become life threatening. Human judgment alone cannot integrate all the interacting and often rapidly changing factors to anticipate  where and when weather will combine  with topography and fuels to endanger  firefighters. 

Recent research in this area has advanced understanding of wildland fires and has been used to demonstrate how a sequence of atmospheric, topographic, and fuel conditions contributed to firefighter fatalities in past wildland fires. Dr. Janice Coen at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) applied advanced computational methods to real world firefighting safety. CAWFE(Coupled Atmosphere-Wildland Fire Environment), a computer model developed at NCAR, simulates complex fire behavior. With support from the AFG R&D grant program (EMW-2011-FP-01124), Dr. 

Coen adapted CAWFE to enable visual display of how emerging conditions endanger and entrap firefighters. 

An Educational Tool. Using weather and fire conditions that could or did result in injuries and deaths of firefighters, Dr. Coen created case studies. Example: As a fire runs out of fuel, the convection column of a fire-driven pyrocumulus cloud can suddenly collapse sending wind and fire on the ground outward – an event that occurred in the 2018 Carr Fire in Northern California. With Dr. Coen's adaptation of the CAWFE model, the sudden change in fire spread direction and speed became visible to firefighters. 

Dr. Coen disseminates case studies through seminars and social media to firefighters. Her postings on social media have generated over 150,000 views and interest from firefighters1

Fire Spread Prediction. A challenge Dr. Coen is undertaking now, with support from a second AFG R&D grant (EMW-2015-FP-0088), focuses on assistance to wildland fire incident commanders. The goal is to provide accurate predictions of fire spread as much as 24 hours in advance based on the initial footprint of a fire in progress, as imaged from satellites. 

For example, using weather and environmental data from the rapidly spreading October 2017 Tubbs Fire near Calistoga, CA, Dr. Coen used the CAWFE model to predict initial fire spread2. Calculations were in good agreement with satellite images of the fire footprint taken six hours after the fire started. 

To be useful to fire incident commanders, predictions require calculations to be much faster than real time. Recently, Dr. Coen calculated 24-hours of wildland fire spread over a 26 km square area in 6-hours. With Dr. Coen's ongoing dissemination of case studies and progress on rapidly identifying dangerous fire behavior, research is helping to improve wildland firefighter safety. 

(1) One source: 

(2) Coen, J. L., W. Schroeder, and B. Quayle, 2018: The generation and forecast of extreme winds during the origin and progression of the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Atmosphere, 9, 462. [