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Model charts map of a wildfire’s likely path in a community

A smoldering home sits mostly destroyed amid bare trees and destruction at the site of the Marshall Fire in Boulder, Colorado
Jack Dempsey
/
AP
The Marshall fire in Boulder County, Colo., burned an estimated 6,000 acres and displaced 35,000 people. About 1,000 homes were lost. Engineers from Colorado State University developed a model to help predict the path a fire may take.

Wildfires have become a more and more common occurrence throughout the Mountain West. When wildfires burn, it can seem like the flames go everywhere and it can be difficult to predict their path. To address this problem, engineers from Colorado State University developed a model to help make a more accurate prediction for the path a wildfire might take. The model also aims to show which buildings in a community will survive a wildfire so communities can improve mitigation strategies.

“We now have something that allows us to reflect on how the risk is like for different communities and how we can lower that risk,” said Hussam Mahmoud, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and a co-author on the study.

Hussam Mahmoud is the George T. Abell Professor in Infrastructure in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. His research focused on predicting the path a wildfire might take.
Courtesy of Hussam Mahmoud
Hussam Mahmoud is the George T. Abell Professor in Infrastructure in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. His research focused on predicting the path a wildfire might take.

Researchers used a concept called Graph Theory, which is also used to track the spread of a disease. Each house, like a person, acts as a node and connects to other nodes. Factors like how homes are spaced and whether they have flammable materials affect the fire’s likely path – just like social distancing can impact the spread of a disease.

Mahmoud said many studies predict the path of a fire in wildlands, but not so much in communities. That’s primarily because other models have a simple fuel source: rows of trees. But when each community has an unique layout of roads, cars and homes, there are more factors to consider.

Most recently, the model was applied to the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado. It had 74% accuracy on predicting the path of the fire and the homes that burned, according to Mahmoud. When tested on the 2018 Camp Fire and 2020 Glass Fire in California, it had 64% and 86% accuracy, respectively, according to the data published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“That level of accuracy is pretty darn good, given that also we're using that to make holistic decisions on what should be done,” Mahmoud said.

Mahmoud spoke about his research at a TedX talk and presented this data at COP27, a global climate conference. It was very well-received.

He said this could help cities plan for wildfires.

Hussam Mahmoud and Akshat Chulahwat, another author on the research, developed a framework for formulating a graph to capture fire interactions between ignitable components within a community. This figure is from their study, “Integrated graph measures reveal survival likelihood for buildings in wildfire events.”
Courtesy of Hussam Mahmoud
Hussam Mahmoud and Akshat Chulahwat, another author on the research, developed a framework for formulating a graph to capture fire interactions between ignitable components within a community. This figure is from their study, “Integrated graph measures reveal survival likelihood for buildings in wildfire events.”

“If you know where the fire is going to start and you have a good idea, you could intentionally build a path for the fire to propagate, to take it away from your community,” he said. “I can set my vegetation or trees in a certain way, in a certain path to take the fire away…it could be interesting to explore [with this data].”

There are many solutions for homeowners, such as installing fire-resistant roofing or indoor sprinklers.

But Mahmoud said a one-size-fits-all fire solution doesn’t work. The best, most cost-effective approaches need to be evaluated community by community.

“We're not telling communities, ‘These homes have to do it and you must do it here or there,’” he said. “In fact, because it's left up to the community, we’re finding in our results that there are certain things that you could do where it becomes completely in a way useless.”

Mahmoud is working with researchers to develop a tool to make cost-effective solutions based on the layout of each community. He’s also evaluating more fires with the model.

Right now, he is excited that the model is being used.

“We get a lot of requests now from different communities asking, ‘Can you look at my community, you can do something?’” he said. “I think there's just the ability to feel that the work we're doing will help people and help communities feel safer.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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