Los Angeles uses app to predict wildfires

Los Angeles uses app to predict wildfires

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

When several Los Angeles County neighborhoods were devastated by wildfires in 1993, 1994 and 1996, firefighters redoubled their efforts to use the most recent advances in computing to battle an old enemy.

Los Angeles County Fire Department officials teamed with the Atmospheric and Climate Sciences Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory to create a wildfire prediction application.

Led by Jim Bossert, project leader for the Wildfire Modeling Project of the Atmospheric and Climate Sciences Group, a team of researchers is writing computer models of wildfires in Fortran on Nirvana Blue, a supercomputer developed by Los Alamos, the Energy Department and SGI.

Nirvana Blue is capable of 1 trillion calculations per second, Bossert said.

It has about 2,000 Cray Origin2000 processors, linked by fast switches.

True blue

Nirvana Blue uses technology similar to that of Los Alamos' Blue Mountain supercomputer, which claims bragging rights as the world's fastest supercomputer. But Blue Mountain was designed to perform nuclear weapons simulations and other weapons modeling. Nirvana Blue was designed for academic, industrial and public safety computing.

Computer modeling of wildfires is complex, Bossert said. Los Alamos researchers wrote a computer algorithm to describe the flow, combustion process and weather variables involved in a wildfire. Nirvana Blue will be able to build simulations to predict how fires will behave, Bossert said.

Once the system is fully operational later this year, firefighters will be able to battle virtual fires simulated on Nirvana Blue. 'A firefighter might say, 'Wow, in this situation, I wouldn't know what to do,' say, a sudden hazardous material spill in an urban area,' Bossert said. 'The firefighter could model that scenario and see what sort of tactics he could develop.'

The Wildfire Prediction System 'lets us play with different types of containment scenarios,' Los Angeles County fire chief Mike Morgan said. 'We can do regional planning and see how much protective area people need around their houses.'

One-third hot

Firefighters' jobs have changed dramatically in the past 20 years or so. 'Only 28 to 30 percent of everything we do involves fire,' said John McIntire, associate chief information officer of Los Angeles County and former information systems manager for the county Fire Department. The rest is emergency medical, rescue, hazardous-materials and, in Los Angeles County, lifeguard services.

Problems in the past few years have typically involved communications, McIntire said.

During the Malibu firestorm in 1994, for example, firefighters from all around the country came to help battle the blaze. But they all had different communications systems'digital, trunked, analog.

Radios are great in the city, where there are lots of transmission towers, McIntire said. But Los Angeles County has canyons, mountains and deserts where radio transmissions are harder to pick up.

Several county firefighters were killed a few years ago when they were fighting a fire on a hill and rescue workers couldn't pick up their trouble signal.

County officials found that some of their communications problems were shared by the international maritime community, only their troublesome element was water, not fire.

Maritime workers use a communications system from Ross Engineering Co. of Largo, Fla., that relies on a conventional analog radio but works with the Global Positioning System and geographic information system tracking, McIntire said.

Skipping ships

Ross' DSC 500 VHF radio sends digital signals that leapfrog from one to another, he said. 'That's how ships communicate at sea. They skip from one ship to another until they get to a rescue ship,' McIntire said.


Los Angeles Fire Department officials can use a fire-modeling system to simulate the progression of a fire in 10-minute intervals.


The Ross radio signals leap from fire truck to fire truck. There is even a handheld model that can transmit signals from fireman to fireman. Ross Norsworthy, president of Ross Engineering, described the DSC 500 VHF radio as 'a computer with a radio wrapped around it,' with a display and keyboard. About the size of a brick, the radios use a packet-relay system to transmit data.

The fire department installed the Ross radio system in coastal Malibu, and the signal transmits as far as Catalina Island, 30 miles offshore.

It also provides GIS tracking and digital mapping. Perhaps best of all, firefighters can push a button that sends out a GPS beacon, so rescue teams can locate them.

Morgan said that firefighters have become heavily dependent on computers. The fire department has its own intranet and access to the Internet. Hewlett- Packard Vectra PCs with Pentium III processors running Microsoft Windows 98 are the department's standard.

Department officials are also putting automated vehicle location systems based on GPS into fire trucks and bringing them into a real-time synthesis and display format, Morgan said.

The county Fire Department is taking part in an effort to transfer technology from the military, using old military satellites to spot wildfires and volcanic eruptions, Morgan said.

'It's a way to turn our swords into plowshares,' he said.

The city of Los Angeles looked to smaller computers to improve safety. The department's brush fire inspectors used handheld personal digital assistants to keep track of brush clearance by property owners. The department invested in SPT 1500 PDAs from Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y. City officials chose the SPT 1500 because of its built-in bar code scanner, said Dale Thomson, director of systems for the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

Paper gone

Fire departments have strict staffing requirements, Thomson said. Each of the city's 105 fire stations is required to be fully staffed, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This requirement used to generate a lot of paper, in overtime forms and time sheets.

'It was like when you go into an automobile dealership to buy a car, and the salesman comes out with 65 different forms,' Thomson said.

So Thomson and his team wrote a program in Clipper that automates personnel forms. The city has saved 40,000 staff hours per year with the system.

Thomson is transitioning the MS-DOS Clipper program to Inprise Corp.'s Delphi, which supports Oracle, Sybase and Informix databases.

The Clipper system ran on a 17-year-old Wang VS 100 server that wouldn't have made the leap into 2000, Thomson said.

The city Fire Department is expanding its use of the Web, Thomson said.

But firefighters have to sign a statement about where they can and cannot go on the Web, Thomson said. 'We can melt their badges if they go to forbidden places on the Web,' he said.

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