SCIENCE

California researchers use machine learning to predict growth of wildfires

Sep 18, 2019, 11:27 AM
machine learning wildfires...
The Gun Range Fire in Bountiful, Utah, destroyed three homes and forced about 400 to evacuate. Scientists hope machine learning can help them predict how large a fire will grow. Photo: Colby Walker | KSL Newsradio

IRVINE, California — Researchers at the University of California, Irvine are using machine learning to predict how big wildfires will grow. They’re using information on hand when a fire ignites to make the prediction.

“A useful analogy is to consider what makes something go viral in social media,” said lead author Shane Coffield, a UCI doctoral student in Earth system science. “We can think about what properties of a specific tweet or post might make it blow up and become really popular – and how you might predict that at the moment it’s posted or right before it’s posted.”

Viral philosophy used for fire prediction

Coffield and his fellow researchers applied the same line of thinking to an imaginary scenario in which multiple fires break out at once. As residents of the western US know, sometimes fires spark at the same time across multiple locations, particularly with our dry climate. Knowing which of the fires is going to become big or potentially threaten homes can help firefighters decide where to send more resources.

“Only a few of those fires are going to get really big and account for most of the burned area, so we have this new approach that’s focused on identifying specific ignitions that pose the greatest risk of getting out of control,” Coffield said.

Alaska used as an example

The team zeroed in on Alaska for its study. One reason was because of the existence of multiple fires at the same time in the state’s boreal forests. Boreal forests are considered critical to the global ecosystem because of their impact on climate worldwide.

Researchers used a “decision tree” algorithm to gather and access information. They used specific information from the first six days of a fire, including climate, atmospheric conditions, the types of vegetation in the area, and the vapor pressure deficit – how little moisture is in the air.  With the machine learning model, they were able to accurately predict how large the wildfires would grow about 50% of the time.

Coffield said a major advantage with the algorithmic method is speed. With each new bit of information, he said, the algorithm “learns” and adjusts its prediction.

Specific plants are indicators

Professor and co-author James Randerson said even the existence of a specific type of plant could have a major impact on whether a wildfire grows large. And,  how quickly it does so.

“Black spruce, which are dominant in Alaska, have these long, droopy branches that are designed – from an evolutionary perspective – to wick up fire,” Randerson said. “Their seeds are adapted to do well in a post-fire environment, so their strategy is to kill off everything else around them during a fire to reduce competition for their offspring.”

How Utah can benefit

While the research was conducted in Alaska, Randerson said other states like Utah should be able to benefit from the machine learning study. He said wildfires are expected to increase in number every year as a result of climate change. The ability to forecast fire growth would help local fire departments protect property and infrastructure and even save lives.

“In places like Alaska, there’s a need to limit the area affected by fire, because if we keep having these unusual, high-fire years, more carbon will be lost from the landscape, exacerbating warming,” Randerson said. “If we let the fires run away, we could be in a situation where there’s a lot of significant damage to both the climate system and ecosystems.”

Today’s Top Stories

Science

Great Salt Lake State Park and Marina...
Mark Jones

How much will it take to save the Great Salt Lake?

A bipartisan bill was passed in the U.S. Senate aimed at giving funding toward the study of The Great Salt Lake and other saline lakes in the west.
3 days ago
Spinosaurus...
Ashley Strickland, CNN

Fearsome spinosaurus wasn’t the scourge of prehistoric seas after all

The Spinosaurus, the largest known predatory dinosaur, may have made for a very slow and awkward swimmer, according to new research.
3 days ago
In this image taken from NASA video, a solar panel is unfolded at the International Space Station, ...
Ashley Strickland, CNN

Astronauts will give the space station a power boost during Saturday spacewalk

The International Space Station will receive a power boost during a spacewalk on Saturday, as NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Frank Rubio install a solar array outside the floating laboratory.
5 days ago
Gov. Cox mental health...
Mark Jackson

Utah’s Coordinated Action Plan for Water released this week

Utah’s Coordinated Action Plan for Water was released Wednesday by Gov. Spencer Cox and state agencies.
7 days ago
space radio...
Elizabeth Weiler

USU making history with a radio entering the lunar orbit

LOGAN, Utah — Utah State University has successfully sent a radio, created by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory into the orbit of earth’s moon.  The deep space radio is named Iris, after the Greek mythological goddess, daughter of Thaumas and Electra and messenger of the gods. The radio made its way into the orbit via a CubeSat […]
8 days ago
In this image provided by NASA, the Earth and its moon are seen from NASA's Orion spacecraft on Mon...
Jackie Wattles, CNN

NASA’s Orion reaches record-breaking distance from Earth

NASA confirmed that Orion had reached the midpoint of its uncrewed mission around the moon — about 270,000 miles (434,523 kilometers) from Earth.
9 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
California researchers use machine learning to predict growth of wildfires