Colorado to test new wildfire prediction system next year

AP News
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Posted: Dec 24, 2015 5:05 PM
Colorado to test new wildfire prediction system next year

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Colorado plans to test a new wildfire prediction system next year that could protect firefighters from blazes that have been burning out of control and causing more devastation in recent years.

The state will launch a trial run of technology from the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research starting late in the 2016 fire season, KUNC reported (http://bit.ly/1O5dPaq ).

The system combines two models in an effort to make fire crews safer: one that predicts weather and another that predicts fire, said William Mahoney, the center's deputy director of the research applications lab.

Scientists know that in large fires, the heat and moisture from the flames "actually changes the local weather," Mahoney said, but "everyone is kind of blind to that reaction."

That's problematic because the clash between the fire and the weather often leads to extreme events, such as mini-tornadoes or thunderstorms caused by the blaze, he said.

Fires acting unpredictably can pose a danger for crews because they can suddenly change direction, race over ridges or explode in size where a plane is trying to drop retardant.

Making predications will "make the fire mitigation and firefighting operations more efficient," Mahoney said.

Weather models and fire models both exist, but they don't mix, he said. Neither works well alone since the advent of super-wildfires seen today that create their own weather.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research has not had the chance to test its combined model in real time until now. It has informed the federal government and states about its technology.

Colorado lawmakers, frustrated by what they called slow federal responses to devastating wildfires in 2012 and 2013, voted this year to fund the model's real-world trial over the next five years. They also approved new aerial firefighting capabilities in 2013 as part of the effort.

Researchers want to test the system for flood prediction, too. But lawmakers removed that portion of the bill to lower the price tag.

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Information from: KUNC-FM, http://www.kunc.org/