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California Researchers Develop Wildfire Modeling System To Help Fight Fires Smarter

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) - Wildfires in Northern California have been destructive this season, but they have also been informative for fire weather researchers at San Jose State University.

SJSU scientists have deployed advanced Doppler radar and LiDAR technology near the front lines of fires to learn more about how fires behave and predict how they will spread, providing firefighters on the ground with useful information in practically real time.

"It's been a really busy time," says Craig Clements, director of SJSU's Fire Weather Research Laboratory (WIRC). "We've been running a modeling system for the Dixie Fire and the Caldor Fire operationally, so twice a day we run those forecasts."

Clements says the technology, co-developed by SJSU faculty, blends a high resolution weather model with a fire prediction system that accurately forecasted aspects of the Caldor Fire's spread. These models were sent to the state's fire management agencies to help them plan the firefight on the ground.

"It actually matched up really well on a few of those critical nights on the Caldor fire," Clements tells CBS station KPIX.

The system does have limitations on how far in advance it can accurately forecast. But it can do something else standard weather forecasting can't: factor in the winds created on the surface and in the plume by the fire itself, which often causes the most erratic behavior.

"We just don't have a lot of observations in these mountainous areas," Clements explains. "It's important to get those observations to understand this extreme fire behavior we've been experiencing."

Clements says the team is working on the next step in fire forecasting: where spot fires will happen ahead of the main fire.

"We'll be able to predict where firebrands or embers land," Clements says.

The team is hoping to put that into their fire modeling to help fight fires later this fall or next season.

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