A university professor worked with scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research to help develop a computer model that predicts patterns of wildfire growth and continually updates its forecasts throughout the duration of a fire.

The modeling technique combines satellite imagery of the Earth with a simulation of the extent and direction of a wildfire’s movement, based on weather and typical fire behavior. The map updates every 12 hours and can provide information on how fires, both large and small, will spread over time. Wilfrid Schroeder, a research professor in the behavioral and social sciences college who served as the project’s principal investigator, worked to increase the resolution of the map’s images to yield a more realistic projection. 

By using relatively new polar-orbiting technology called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, Schroeder decreased the pixel width of the satellite burn severity data from 1,000 meters of land to just 375 meters — a 10-fold increase in spatial information, he said.

“The great thing about these sensors is that we’re able to now see forest fires and smaller fires,” he said. “We can look at these smaller fires before they become major events, and we can supply information on how best to attack them.” 

The origins of the wildfire modeling project date back to September 2012, when the NASA Applied Sciences Program began funding it as part of what Schroeder called “a one-year visibility study” in which he and his fellow researchers were tasked with demonstrating the concept’s plausibility. 

Next month, NASA will complete its review and choose which projects, from a pool of more than 15, it will fund for the next several years as part of an implementation phase. If the wildfire prediction model is selected, organizations such as the National Weather Service and the U.S. Forest Service could soon begin using the technology, Schroeder said. 

“The idea is to have NASA kick-start the operation, and then have other agencies pick up the slack,” he said. “They would provide about 50 percent of the funding — more at the beginning — and then phase it out as the other agencies started paying for it.”

Schroeder, a visiting scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has studied fire behavior and prediction for almost 15 years, said the state-of-the-art fire forecasting system has the potential to save lives. In the future, technology will enable authorities to make evacuation calls sooner, and people will be better prepared to evade dangerous situations, he said.

“With this approach, we can provide more realistic information on fire prevention,” Schroeder said.

In June, a wildfire near the small town of Yarnell, Ariz., killed 19 firefighters when the wind changed direction suddenly, in what was the largest single loss of life among firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001. From 2008 to 2012, 74 people died fighting wildfires, The New York Times reported in July.

Patricia Oliva, a research associate who began working with Schroeder on the project in April, said she was confident the model would aid firefighters and officials in defusing dangerous situations in the future.

“I think we can really help them see how the fire is progressing, to better manage their resources,” she said. “It’s nice to feel that your work is really helping people. That’s really motivating.” 

The project’s technology is made up of two parts: VIIRS data collected by Schroeder and a framework called the Coupled Atmosphere-Wildland Fire Environment computer model. Although the model was built to observe basic fire phenomena, it has evolved into a forecasting system that combines atmospheric information with fire behavior tendencies, said Janice Coen, a Colorado-based NCAR scientist who developed the model and co-authored the report.

“We’re looking at the big picture,” she said. “Where is the fire going to go? Is it going to intensify? These are the questions we think about.”

Whether NASA chooses to fund the newly developed prediction system after the review process ends, Coen said, the technology will change the way officials respond to natural disasters. 

“We’ve had such good reactions from so many people that I’m really confident this is something that will be put in place,” Coen said.