Wildfire Simulation Technology – Part 2

In the summer of 2003, a wildfire was threatening the Montana town of Hungry Horse. Several simulations were run by scientists who had combined data on the conditions of the fire, fuel, and weather to provide a forecast of what the fire would do.


In the summer of 2003, a wildfire was threatening the Montana town of Hungry Horse. Several simulations were run by scientists who had combined data on the conditions of the fire, fuel, and weather to provide a forecast of what the fire would do.

The results of one of these simulations suggested that some spot fires could occur on the far side of Hungry Horse Reservoir. Firefighters were waiting when that occurred, quickly dousing the blazes. Instead of a conflagration that could have consumed thousands of acres, it was contained after scorching just 20 acres, sparing Hungry Horse and some key power lines in the fire’s path in the bargain.

Since that time, wildfire simulations have improved and multiplied considerably. With an estimated 40% of homes in the U.S. in the Wildland Urban Interface, even major cities need to have ways to predict wildfire activity. In this installment of our series on wildfire simulations, we will sample some of the more advanced software available to deal with wildfires worldwide developed by federal agencies and, in most cases, available as a free download.

U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Forest Service (USFS) scientists have a number of software tools that can be utilized to analyze and model wildfire behavior. But in order to properly use these tools, a bit of classwork is required, which falls under the aegis of the Geospatial Fire Analysis Interpretation and Application course, generally know by its catalog designation, S495. “This is an intense course whose intention is to train individuals to use several different decision support systems that fire managers use to model/simulate fire growth and fire behavior characteristics,” explained Chuck McHugh, a USFS Fire Spatial Analyst who does behavior modeling for wildland fire at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, MT. “It requires approximately 120-160 hours of distance learning material, and then 40 hours of residence (classroom) instruction.”

Users also need a solid foundation in understanding fire behavior to adequately assess the validity of modeling results. In order to attend the S495 course, applicants also have to have successfully completed S490 – Advanced Fire Behavior Calculations.

“During S495, students learn to use FireFamilyPlus to analyze historical weather,” said McHugh. “They also get a heavy dose of training in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze, critique, and edit geospatial data, and they are taught how to use several different fire modeling systems: FARSITE, FlamMap, and FSPro.”

Let’s take a closer look at the programs McHugh mentions.

FireFamilyPlus (FFP) is used for summarizing and analyzing daily weather observations and computing fire danger indices based on the United States National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS). It will also produce Fire Danger Indices for the Canadian Fire Danger Rating System (CFDRS). The guide that comes as part of the download provides details on obtaining historical fire weather and occurrence data, importing those data into FFP, and working with the analysis capabilities of the program. The nice thing about this program is that it can be downloaded to a personal computer for use anywhere. For more information, go to http://www.firemodels.org/index.php/national-systems/firefamilyplus.

FarSite is a fire behavior and fire growth simulator that incorporates both spatial and temporal information on topography, fuels, and weather. It incorporates existing models for surface fire, crown fire, spotting, post-frontal combustion, and fire acceleration into a two-dimensional fire growth model. This software is used by the USFS, National Park Service, and other federal and state land management agencies to simulate the spread of wildfires and fire use for resource benefit across the landscape. And best of all, it can be downloaded free to a personal computer! Visit http://www.firemodels.org/index.php/national-systems/farsite to get more information on this software.

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