Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - How Your World Works -

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.

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