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How Artificial Intelligence Is Fighting Wildfires
Thursday: A lab at the University of California, San Diego, uses data to figure out how fires will burn, and how to help prevent them.
July 15, 2021Updated 3:01 p.m. ET
Firefighters battling the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex fire, California’s largest fire so far this year.Credit…Noah Berger/Associated Press
In 2003, Dr. Ilkay Altintas, a computer scientist with the University of California, San Diego, had her first wildfire encounter. She had been in Santa Barbara for a workshop and couldn’t take the train home.
“The track was gone,” she recalled this week.
So she hitched a ride with a colleague. She remembers seeing the ocean on one side of her and fire on the other as they drove. “It was like heaven and hell.”
That year, fires tore through the San Diego region, leaving 16 people dead and 2,400 homes destroyed. One of the blazes, the Cedar fire, was at the time the largest in California history, burning more than 273,000 acres.
Since then, that record has been demolished as climate change has lengthened fire seasons and caused the blazes themselves to burn hotter and faster. Last year, five of the six largest fires in the state’s known history together chewed through nearly 2.5 million acres. The Cedar fire is now the state’s eighth-largest blaze, and the only one in the top 10 to have taken place before 2010.
But, as Altintas told me, technology has also advanced in the years since 2003. That, she said, can help both prevent out-of-control wildfires and minimize the destruction they cause.
“It gives us hope,” she said.
Altintas is the founder and director of the university’s WIFIRE Lab, where she and her team have worked over the past eight years to use data to help fire managers and scientists.
And in the last decade or so, the quantity of data has increased. A lot.
Where once there were basic weather cameras used by surfers, there are now vast systems taking in almost real-time satellite views, sensing wind patterns, tracking utility service and more.
All that information, coupled with troves of data about past blazes, can be used with artificial intelligence to quickly predict how fires will burn once they have ignited, and to help plan measures, like prescribed burns, aimed at preventing bigger, more dangerous fires.
“It’s been an information revolution,” Altintas said.
She demonstrated the lab’s fire map, which she said was used to help fight every major fire in the state. The interface was intuitive, like a more colorful Google map.
Altintas clicked on filters that showed ongoing fires in detail — where they were actively burning and where they had already been — along with the areas that had been burned by fires in the past. She said she could pull up camera views from weather stations or see how a given fire might have burned if conditions had been different, and how close it would have come to where people live.
This, she said, helps fire officials decide where to send resources to battle a fast-moving blaze and which areas to evacuate.
A product known as BurnPro 3D showed, as the name suggests, three-dimensional images of vegetation down to a one-meter resolution. That can help fire managers prioritize where they should intentionally light fires when it’s safe to do so, because they can see where fuels have built up to dangerous levels.
A vineyard in Napa Valley recovering from last year’s fires.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
In coming years, Altintas said, she hopes the fire map and BurnPro 3D will help significantly streamline the permitting process for prescribed burns and will be able to help predict where there is a risk for landslides or flooding.
“Those are all very relatable things that can happen at any time,” she said. “So we want to pull together the data and modeling community to model those as fast as we can.”
Ultimately, she emphasized that one of the lab’s most important functions is making data — and tools for analyzing it — accessible to a wide range of collaborators across the country.
That, Altintas said, is the only way that scientists and officials can even attempt to keep up with rapidly changing environmental challenges.
“The main thing here is we can’t just react,” she said. “We need more people to say, ‘We can do something about it.’”
Follow all of The Times’s heat wave and wildfire coverage here.
California spent more than $1 billion on emergency wildfire suppression last year, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Read about how that’s a fraction of the total cost of wildfires, including damages and health consequences.
The Los Angeles Times reports that fires have burned more than 140,000 acres so far this year in California, with the biggest blazes burning faster and hotter than some firefighters have seen this early in the year.
Explore WIFIRE Lab’s Firemap, developed with the Orange County Fire Authority, CalOES, the Los Angeles Fire Department and more.
And learn more about WIFIRE Commons, developed with federal agencies, the Los Alamos National Lab and dozens of other partners.
Here’s what else to know today
Jaevon Williams and
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On Wednesday, another high-profile Californian was tapped for an important mission by the Biden administration: The 18-year-old pop star and Temecula native Olivia Rodrigo let her fellow young people know that coronavirus vaccines are — and I wish I could take credit for this — “Good 4 U.” (That’s the name of a throwback emo anthem from her No. 1 album, “Sour,” if you’re unfamiliar.)
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California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected] Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
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