Colorado to use new system to predict wildland fire behavior

Janice Coen Gov. John Hickenlooper sign bill
Gov. John Hickenlooper traveled to an Arvada fire station to sign the bill that will implement a wildfire prediction system. Dr. Janice Coen, one of the developers of the system, is on the left. Photo provided by COHOUSEDEMS.

The Governor of Colorado signed a bill Wednesday that authorizes the state to spend $1.2 million over the next two years on a “revolutionary” wildfire prediction system that uses weather data, groundbreaking computer modeling, and high resolution satellite imagery to predict the spread of fires up to 18 hours in advance.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the (Colorado Springs) Gazette:

…”This bill will predict the intensity and the direction of fires 12 to 18 hours ahead of time. That is really important so we know where to direct our planes, the aircraft we had a bill for last year, and our firefighters,” said Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, who introduced the bill. “This is really revolutionary.”

Under the new law, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control will contract with a nonprofit Colorado-based research organization with expertise in atmospheric science to predict wildfire behavior. The National Center for Atmospheric Research, a federally funded program headquartered in Boulder, is the only state agency that meets that criteria. NCAR has used modeling to accurately recreate the behavior of historic fires, including the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters in 2013.

She said the new technology could be in place by next spring and will work with the state’s new aerial fire fleet, a multimillion-dollar investment into wildfire detecting and fighting aircraft lawmakers made in 2013…

Janice Coen at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is one of the scientists working on this program. We have written about her work previously:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara.

Simulation of winds affecting the Yarnell Hill Fire

This is an animation developed by Janice Coen, Ph.D., a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. It simulates through a coupled weather-wildland fire environment model the spread of the Yarnell Hill Fire and the wind direction and speed. The arrows indicate the wind direction; the length of the arrows vary with the wind speed. On June 30, 2013 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun by the fire when the winds from a thunderstorm cell north of the fire changed the direction of spread of the fire by about 90 degrees, surprising the firefighters on the south side of the fire, resulting in their entrapment.

See if you can tell when conditions worsened for the Hotshots.

Dr. Coen’s description of the simulation:

It begins at 2 am on 6/30/13. The fire is initialized in the model using the ~3 am VIIRS active fire detection map. Each frame is 1 minute apart, the sequence extends until 8:15 pm on 6/30. The fatality occurred around 4:45 PM. The color bar on the right indicates the heat flux (watts per square meter) from the fire, with more intensely burning areas in bright yellow and white, and less intensely burning areas in darker reds.
In the simulation, solar heating stirs up the boundary layer circulations throughout the day. Convection occurs in outer domains (not shown) to the northeast, creating high-based convective clouds as air flows south/southeast over the Mogollon Rim. Rain falls into a very dry boundary layer, creating a broad gust front that reaches the south edge of the fire at frame 936, which is 51 minutes after the fatality, so the simulated rush through the fatality site is about an hour slow.

The map below shows the approximate location of the fire at 4:30 p.m. on June 30, 2014, about 15 minutes before the Hotshots were entrapped at the deployment site (X) on the south side.

Yarnell Hill Fire, estimated perimeter at 4:30 p.m. June 30, 2014
Yarnell Hill Fire, estimated perimeter at 4:30 p.m. June 30, 2014. Source: Arizona State Forestry Division.

Better satellite imagery enables improved wildfire mapping and growth predictions

Higher resolution imagery becoming available from satellites will enable more accurate mapping and spread prediction of wildfires.

Higher resolution imagery becoming available from satellites will enable more accurate mapping and spread prediction of wildfires. Since we created Wildfire Today in 2008 we have frequently displayed maps showing fire data collected by the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument package, such as the one below of the Falls Fire near Elsinore, California in August. The red squares represent heat detected by MODIS before the fire spread east across the South Main Divide and down through the bowl where the Decker Fire fatalities occurred in 1959. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013
Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013, showing heat detected by a satellite. The red squares indicating heat can be as much as a mile in error. (click to enlarge)

MODIS, launched in 1999 with its 1,000-meter resolution system, is starting to show its age. Better technology is now available and is orbiting 512 miles above the Earth on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite launched October 28, 2011 . The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the satellite is a 22-band radiometer designed to collect infrared and visible light data to observe wildfires, movement of ice, and changes in landforms. It has a resolution of 375 meters, much better than the MODIS. The new Landsat 8 satellite launched in February has a resolution of 30 meters for most of its sensors, and 100 meters for thermal infrared. This will be a game changer. In March we published a test image of the Galena Fire taken with Landsat 8.

Below is a comparison of data from MODIS and VIIRS. Click on it to see a larger version.

When observing wildfires, satellites provide different levels of detail, depending on which instrument is used. The image at left, produced from data generated by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, uses 1-kilometer pixels (a bit over half a mile across) to approximate a fire burning in Brazil from March 26 to 30, 2013. The image at right, produced with data from the new VIIRS instrument, shows the same fire in far greater detail with 375-meter pixels (a bit over 1,200 feet across). (Image courtesy Wilfrid Schroeder, University of Maryland.)

Last month we told you about a proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, which would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes. But since the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it probably will never be built or launched.

Two scientists who have been working with some of the new data that is available now are Janice Coen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and Wilfrid Schroeder with the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland. They intend to transition the new refined spatial resolution VIIRS and Landsat-8 fire detection data and a new weather forecast-fire spread model into operations in the next two to three years. Mr. Schroeder told us that some of the higher resolution data should replace the MODIS data on the GEOMAC website in the next one to two months. In the meantime you can see some early versions of it on an experimental basis at a website they created.

The two of them recently published a paper documenting the development of a new wildfire spread model (think newer version of BEHAVE) that, coupled with high resolution numerical weather prediction and the actual location of a fire as detected by the 375-meter resolution VIIRS, predicts the fire behavior and spread of a fire, displaying it on a map. The model can be run after the overflights of the satellite every 12 hours using updated weather forecast information and the current location of the fire.

Their paper is HERE, and a description of the concept written by Ms. Coen is below.
Continue reading “Better satellite imagery enables improved wildfire mapping and growth predictions”

Supercomputer model of Esperanza fire

The video below is a simulation of the spread of the Esperanza fire which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in 2006 near Cabazon, California. Raymond Lee Oyler was sentenced to death after he was convicted of five counts of murder and 37 counts of arson for starting this fire and many others.

The simulation was produced by Janice L. Coen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Philip J. Riggan of the Pacific Southwest Research Station.

The description of the video which is on YouTube:


It takes a supercomputer to run a mathematical simulation, or model, of the complex processes observed in wildfires. It often takes yet more computing power to visualize the data coming out of the computer model. This fire-behavior simulation reproduces the October 2006 Esperanza Fire near Cabazon, California. Using data from the NCAR fire-weather model, simulations like this one are helping scientists explain the physical processes and behavior within large wildfires.

An arsonist ignited the blaze on the upwind edge of Cabazon Peak during a Santa Ana wind event. Driven by gusty Santa Ana winds, dry chaparral fuels, and steep terrain, the fire rapidly spread up into the San Jacinto Wilderness.

The simulation reproduces several features observed during the fire: the rapid spread to the west-southwest, runs of flame up canyons that lay perpendicular to the wind direction, splitting of the fire into two heads, and feathering of the fire line at the leading edge.

—–Coupled Weather-Fire Simulation of the Esperanza Wildfire—–

Science: Janice Coen (NCAR) and Phillip Riggin (Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service)

Visualization: Janice Coen and Alan Norton, NCAR, using VAPOR (Visualization and Analysis Platform for Ocean, Atmosphere, and Solar Researchers)

More information:


UPDATE November 12, 2013:

Esperanza Fire Factual Report, and the USDA Office of Inspector General’s Report on the fire.

Wildfire briefing, June 30, 2012

Court rules company must pay $18 million for 2002 Copper fire

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a company must pay $18 million for “Intangible environmental damages” caused by the Copper fire that burned 20,000 acres in 2002, most of it within the Angeles National Forest in southern California. The company had not contested a previous jury award of $7.6 million for fire suppression costs, but they balked at the “intangible” damage.

USFS Director of Fire has an opinion about resource orders placed by Incident Commanders

The authors of an Associated Press article interviewed Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s Director of Fire and Aviation Management, who talked about Incident Commanders not always receiving the type of resources they say they need. Here is an excerpt from the article:

…Despite some criticism, Harbour said the U.S. Forest Service has been working to position resources where they’re needed most.

There’s a difference between what incident commanders want and what they need to fight a fire effectively, he said. For example, a commander’s order for 10 hot shot crews — among the most elite firefighters — might be filled instead with a mix of hot shots and initial attack crews, which can be just as formidable but with less experience.

This is insulting to Incident Commanders who are out on the ground in the heat, smoke, and dust after having qualified for their position through 15 to 20 years of wildland fire experience. For someone in Washington or Boise who stares at a computer screen all day to decide what Incident Commanders out in the field REALLY need, is absurd.

Report: U.S. company buys 10 Russian air tankers

There is a flurry of chatter that a company in the United States has purchased 10 Russian-built air tankers. This is not exactly true. David Baskett, President of TTE International Inc.,  has said for years his plan is to purchase 10 BE-200 amphibious air tankers and then lease them to operators in the United States.

Mr. Baskett told Wildfire Today Friday that he “signed a contract to buy 10 planes to be delivered over a few years”. He did not specify if any money has actually changed hands, but until the FAA approves the aircraft to be used in this country, which may or may not happen any time soon, and until he has a contract from the U.S. Forest Service or another agency, which may or may not happen at all, it would be foolish to spend $300 to $400 million on Russian-built air tankers.

BE-200 air tanker at Santa Maria, California
BE-200 air tanker at Santa Maria, California, April, 2010. Photo courtesy of Michael Lynn.

But we have to give Mr. Baskett credit for pursuing his dream with vigor. He arranged for the expenses to be paid for two USFS employees to travel to Taganro, Russia the home base of the Beriev company, the manufacturer of the aircraft, to conduct the first phase of an air tanker evaluation using specs of the Interagency Air Tanker Board. Reportedly the result of that evaluation was mostly positive in relation to performing as a scooper air tanker, but not as a conventional retardant-carrying air tanker. The IATB requirements are very different for the two types. In the future it may also be qualified for retardant.

Mr. Baskett is in discussions with the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management about using the aircraft in this country, and is attempting to set up a test of the air tanker in the U.S. to compare its performance to other aircraft, including the military MAFFS C-130.

In April, 2010, Mr. Baskett brought a BE-200 to the United States to attempt to drum up some interest in the aircraft. It was on display at Santa Maria, California for a couple of days and made some demonstration drops.

The BE-200 can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant loaded at an airport, or water it scoops from a lake.

A question from a reader: can wildfires cause higher temperatures down stream?

Susan sent us this question:

Wow–great website. Very impressive!

That there’s a causal connection between hot, dry weather and wildfires is clear to me. What I am wondering about right now, though, is whether or not the reverse can be true. Colorado has several large fires going at once, right now, and coincidentally we have also had several days of record-breaking, 100+ degree days, including two in a row of 105 degrees in the Denver area. Is it possible that 800 degrees, spread out over a large area, could raise the ambient temperature by a degree or more?

I could not say either way, definitively, so I asked someone who is actually smart (unlike myself) — Janice Coen, Ph.D., a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who conducts wildfire-related weather studies, among other topics. Here is her answer:

No, the fires are just too small compared to all that air. However, a big fire may affect the air temperature by the plume shading the ground from sun for hundreds of miles downstream. And affecting the cloud particles to reflect more sun.

Fingers of fire

Researchers have identified a wildland fire behavior phenomenon that is a little scary–fingers of fire that shoot out from the main flaming front at 100 miles per hour, or 147 feet per second.  These fingers can be tens of feet wide and can extend for hundreds of feet, but then they collapse, all within two seconds.

Shaded contours show the temperature detected by the infrared imager. The vectors show the calculated flow velocities. Every eighth point in the x direction and every fourth point in the z direction are plotted.Janice Coen, Shankar Mahalingam, and John Daily observed this behavior on infrared imagery of going fires and described it in their paper, Infrared Imagery of Crown-Fire Dynamics during FROSTFIRE, Journal of Applied Meteorology, 43, 1241-1259.

According to the report:

This powerful, dynamic mechanism of fire spread could explain firefighter reports of being overtaken by ‘‘fireballs.’’