The Upper Pine River Fire Protection District doesn’t handle a lot of calls – fewer than 1,000 a year, said Chief Bruce Evans. And while there is no substitute for on-the-job experience, the fire district has a new way to prepare firefighters for wildfires, floods and other catastrophic events.
It’s a computer program, one that can project an image onto various surfaces to simulate fires, floods and gas leaks – taking into account elevation, wind speed, wind direction and humidity – to determine how catastrophic events will play out in a real-time scenario.
This type of role-playing simulation is not new, but the computer program and projection are a significant technological upgrade to the district’s fire-mapping models. The district once used tiny trucks and houses in a box of sand meant to represent the landscape, with a red piece of yarn to indicate a spreading wildfire, said Paul Valdez, wildland fire coordinator with the district. Firefighters would predict how the fire would spread and move the yarn to represent movement of a blaze.
Now, the district has a much more sophisticated model that can project a map of anywhere in the United States into the sandbox, or any surface, that can model how fire, water or gas would spread through an area over time. A sandbox is helpful, especially for mountainous environments, because the sand can be molded to represent the three-dimensional topography of an area.
Firefighters are able to adjust wind speed and humidity to illustrate a worst-case scenario. The model also simulates fire-retardant measures, like engines, planes or trenches, to show how different extinguishing methods work on different fires.
“It’s gone from a Commodore 64 to an iPad,” Evans said of the technological upgrade.
The program can also simulate fuel types, giving firefighters a better idea of how a fire will burn up a sparely vegetated mountainside versus a field full of brush. Firefighters plan to use the model to determine when certain areas need to evacuate based on how the fire spreads in the simulation over time.
“It helps people understand what fire behavior will look like and strategies to putting out a fire,” Evans said.
While the technology is capable of predicting how a fire will spread in real time, Evans said he plans to use the tool for training rather than assessment of real-life fires. Operating the tool is labor-intensive – the station has a dedicated crew member to learn and operate it – and doing so during an emergency situation would take boots off the ground, something the small fire department can’t afford during emergencies.
Once all his employees are trained on different scenarios, Evans said he plans to invite representatives from neighborhoods to come see how things might play out if a fire were to approach their subdivision.
The program can simulate how a fire might behave if an area is mitigated or not. Showing people how a fire might burn through a neighborhood if the area is mitigated might spur them to take action to reduce fuels around their homes.
“You go in and talk to people about mitigation and it doesn’t seem real to them,” Evans said. “When they get to see it in real time – that probably sparks a little more action.”
All this technology isn’t cheap, but the Upper Pine received the Simtable on loan from another government agency, which Evans declined to name. Without the loan of the table, the fire protection district could not afford the technology, Evans said.
“This is a pretty luxurious tool for our small department to have,” he said.