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Megafires Fuel New Technology

Andrew Nixon/ CPR

Scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Reno are developing high tech methods to fight, manage and prevent wildfires.

One of these new technologies is called virtual wildfire simulator Vfire. It requires me to don a pair of LCD glasses, a special kind of 3D glasses. I’m in a room with screens all around me, above me, and below me. With the glasses I see Kyle Canyon outside Las Vegas. It’s a box canyon with one entrance and exit. And I’m a virtual firefighter.

“You’ll notice that that fire is spreading over the hill at us,” says Matt Sgambati, a high performance computing digitalization systems analyst. “The smoke is coming at us, pretty soon we won’t be able to see what’s going on."

Justin Broglio, communications officer at DRI, is in this virtual world with me and we’re in trouble.

“What you’re seeing right now is Matt has put us literally on the ground, in the middle of a night fire with the wind blowing a certain direction," says Broglio. "You can see the fire in front of you."

Sgambati then changes our environment and I can see what looks like a cabin in the woods in the distance.

“We can go in front of a building and catch it on fire,” says Sgambati.

I’m able to walk over to the building and stand inside it. I then see the building slowly melt away. In real life, I’d be dead.

Vfire has tools that allow you to manipulate your environment in real-time. It can train firefighters to react to a wildfire’s changing behavior. You can change the scene from night to day, change the type of trees and how they burn, you can even make your own fuel breaks to see how fires react to them. Smoke can be above you and flames can sneak up behind you. It can also help commanders trying to manage a fire.

“If they decide to go in one direction and you know it’s the wrong direction, you can either start more fires there, change the wind, add more fuel, it’s really up to the user what they want to do,” says Sgambati.

Sgambati envisions a day when Vfire could be incorporated into a satellite mapping program like Google Earth. It would have the ability to show vast geographic regions to allow a user to see just how far a fire could spread.

“Right now we’re in Kyle Canyon, if we kept traveling west we would hit California mountainous areas,” says Sgambati. “Say we have 20 fires happening at the same time, how do we coordinate all this? Where’s the best place to start? Where do we dig the fire breaks? That’s what I would love to get to.”

Scientists say Vfire has the potential to simulate the kind of extreme fire events that are predicted with climate change.

Researchers here have shown this virtual world to fire agencies in California and Nevada. They haven’t yet set up training scenarios for firefighters, but it’s the next big step.

Copyright 2014 Capital Public Radio