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November 2002

The Laboratory
in the News

Commentary by
Leland W. Younker

This Model Can Take the Heat

The Best and the Brightest Come to Livermore

A View to a Kill

Biological Research Evolves at Livermore

Patents

Awards

 

Leland W. Younker

Leland W. Younker
Associate Deputy Director for Science and Tecnology

High-Tech Help for Fighting Wildfires


EVERY summer, we’re reminded that wildfires, with their potential to cause severe destruction, are a never-ending national problem. As we witnessed this past year, the western United States is particularly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires, a situation caused in part by allowing underbrush to accumulate. President Bush’s plan to thin national forests as a way of reducing fire danger has intensified the longstanding debate about how best to manage our forests and grasslands and to fight wildfires.
At first glance, developing new tools to help fight wildfires may seem an unusual activity for a national laboratory dedicated to national security. However, Lawrence Livermore has for the past few decades successfully applied its national security expertise, especially its advanced supercomputer modeling skills, to other areas of national importance. Laboratory simulations, for example, are advancing the understanding of the mechanisms of disease, the ways in which metals fatigue and break, how buildings react to earthquakes, and how pollutants migrate underground.
The Livermore effort to develop an advanced capability to simulate past and hypothetical wildfires, train firefighters, prepare for prescribed burns, and eventually provide real-time firefighting advice is described in the article entitled This Model Can Take the Heat. The effort originated in a simple question posed by a visiting congressman a few years ago while he toured the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC), located at Livermore. The congressman asked if NARAC’s unparalleled capability to predict weather and airborne emissions, as seen in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, could be used to fight wildfires.
To answer that question, NARAC scientists researched the current state of wildfire simulation programs. They found that the models available to firefighters have severely limited capabilities and are based on simple laboratory experiments. They also discovered that a group of atmospheric scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory had developed a simulation program based, for the first time, on the physics of combustion, the interactions between fire and close-in weather, and the effects of three-dimensional terrain. As described in the article, Livermore researchers collaborated with the Los Alamos scientists to combine their model, NARAC’s weather and smoke prediction capabilities, and the Laboratory’s supercomputing resources.
In developing the Livermore–Los Alamos wildfire simulation model, the collaborating scientists made sure that it would be more than a fascinating academic demonstration of computational capability. They sought to create a practical tool for firefighters. Livermore scientists and their Los Alamos colleagues held meetings with potential users: fire departments such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department; San Francisco Bay Area organizations such as the East Bay Regional Park District and the East Bay Hills Emergency Forum; and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. On the basis of their input, the team honed the model to reflect firefighters’ needs and achieve a level of fidelity never before imagined. Fire managers who have seen Livermore’s simulations of the early stages of the 1991 Oakland–Berkeley hills fire have marveled at the model’s accuracy and its potential as a training and planning tool.
Until now, most firefighting agencies have not considered an advanced wildfire simulation computer program as a useful planning, training, and firefighting tool. The Livermore–Los Alamos collaborators are working hard to spread the word that such a tool is available. The University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources is sponsoring workshops to communicate the capabilities of the wildfire model to the firefighting community and to encourage other scientists to help make the model even better by adding additional capabilities. In that respect, the team’s goal is to have the Livermore–Los Alamos wildfire model serve as the central framework for a complete physical description of fire behavior, especially at the dangerous interface where urban areas meet forests and grasslands.
I think it’s safe to say that the congressman’s question has been answered with a resounding yes.


 



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UCRL-52000-02-10 | November 15, 2002