As wildfires continue to grip much of Northern California and southern Oregon, firefighters are scrambling to contain the flames while officials are organizing evacuations.
Wildfires spread fast, and a change of wind can make it difficult to track where the flames are moving, which is why computer scientists at the University of San Diego are tapping big data to help forecast the path of destruction in real time.
WIFIRE, a cyber infrastructure system, uses weather sensors and satellite images to analyze the progress of a wildfire and where it’s likely to move in real-time — helping firefighters to make better decisions, according to InformationWeek.
Though WIFIRE is still being developed, the goal is to scale a version that could be used elsewhere in the country where communities are dealing with the natural disaster. In fact, recent reports have found wildfires are growing more intense and more destructive across the western United States.

“Imagine that you could have a detailed model of a wildfire path and you could actually compute the progress of the flames faster than real time and provide advanced warning to the first responders,” says Larry Smarr, a computer scientist with the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information Technology.

This type of technology is precisely what could help reduce the financial toll a wildfire takes on a community after the ashes have settled. For example, the 2003 Cedar Fire in Southern California, the largest in the state’s history, left an estimated $2 billion worth of damages.

Though it’s currently a local project in San Diego, some pilot applications are currently available, according to Ilkay Altintas, director for the Scientific Workflow Automation Technologies Lab at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, who is heading the project.

Scientists are planning to make WIFIRE  available to users through a web interface with real-time alerts sent to receivers before, during and after a fire. The potential would give authorities a leg up on organizing evacuations and putting emergency responders in place to prevent the spread of fires similar to the one blazing through Northern California.
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