Consortium smokes out mysteries of fire behavior

When something 'goes up in smoke,' where does it go?

The Desert Research Institute, a research group in Reno, Nev., that is part of the University and Community College System of Nevada, is using modeling software to answer this and other questions about fire and smoke behavior.

Researchers want to improve the forecasts for prescribed burns, which are fires that an agency has planned to burn for some management objective, such as eradicating an invasive species or improving the health of an ecosystem, said Tim Brown, associate research professor at DRI.

'You don't want the smoke to wind up in a valley, or a hospital, or any place with people who are especially sensitive to smoke,' Brown said.

The program is part of a larger consortium of wildfire and air quality agencies called the California and Nevada Smoke and Air Committee. In addition to DRI, CANSAC members include the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Forestry and Fire Protection Division.

The project kicked off June 1. 'At this point, we might want to say it's at the evaluation stage,' Brown said. The fire behavior models will be used by members of CANSAC, meteorologists with special training in fire weather forecasting and analysts with the National Weather Service, Brown said.

Staffed by 450 research faculty members, graduate students and researchers, DRI is using Mesoscale Model Version 5, or MM5, modeling software developed jointly by Pennsylvania State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. MM5 is written mostly in Fortran. 'We're just utilizing tools other people have developed,' Brown said.

DRI is using the MM5 with tools from SGI, including a 64-bit Linux-based Altix 3000 supercomputer, which uses Intel Itanium processors, and SGI's InfiniteStorage system.

DRI researchers use MM5 to simulate and predict mesoscale atmospheric circulation for the western United States and parts of southwestern Canada and northwestern Mexico. The SGI Altix 3000 makes calculations at 33 different levels in the atmosphere, from the ground surface to about 70,000 feet.

The minimum run to perform these calculations takes 7G of data, twice a day, Brown said.

Using the Altix machine and MM5 modeling, DRI produces two-dimensional maps using a Fortran-based graphics package called Read/Interpolate/Plot or RIP developed by NCAR and the University of Washington. RIP visualizes the output from MM5.

And despite recent media reports, the 2004 wildfire season is shaping up as below average in number and intensity of fires, Brown said. 'I don't know where [the cable news broadcasts] got their forecasts, but they didn't get it from us.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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