A NEW TOOL FOR FIGHTING WILDFIRES
In late June, when the Pawnee Fire in Northern California had burned up more than 40 km2 and was less than one-third contained, the Cal Fire operations chief and incident commander gathered around a sandbox. A crushed-walnut-shell box, actually. The 1-by-2-metre box is part of a device called the Simtable, which also uses a downward-facing projector to help firefighters shape the walnut shells (sand is too reflective) into an accurate 3D map of a relevant area’s topography, then project fire simulations based on the landscape’s conditions (such as the wind, temperature, and relative humidity). The Simtable has been used at Cal Fire’s training academies for three years, but this was the first time it was deployed to a real fire. The command post used it to run worst-case scenarios: If a small spot fire were to spark on the other side of a ridge, how fast would it grow, and how fast could they respond? While its simulation software is probably a year or two from being useful for higher-level decision-making, fire behaviour analyst Jon Heggie, who operated the table, said, ‘It’s going to help us with visual representation of where our trouble areas are, where our opportunities for success could be, and where issues for evacuations are going to be.’ By early July, Cal Fire had the Pawnee Fire 100 per cent contained. Three weeks later, the biggest conflagration in state history, the Mendocino Complex, started. At 300 km2 burned and less than 10 per cent containment, the incident command requested the Simtable.