KAUST scientists have developed new computer simulations that accurately capture wildfire behavior by modelling the combustion of individual trees.
“Our work can help make real forest fires more predictable by simulating potential fire scenarios with real forestry data,” says Torsten Hädrich, a PhD student in assistant professor Dominik Michels’ group. “We are also able to simulate how firebreaks in forests can be used to contain fire spread.”
According to Hädrich, the main challenge lay in capturing the complex dynamics involved.
For instance, the simulation had to include a model for tree combustion and a fluid dynamics component for the simulation of fire while accounting for environmental variations, such as tree density, terrain and wind.
Previous forest-scale fire simulations have represented trees as simple cones or cylinders, but this extreme simplification of forest structure reduces the accuracy of the simulation.
Hädrich, Michels and their collaborators thus sought to develop a method to model trees as collections of branch-like modules.
Depending on the scenario being simulated, each tree can be represented either by many detailed modules to generate highly realistic branching structures or by fewer coarser modules for efficient computation.
Hädrich asserts that this new approach is capable of realistically simulating the propagation of fire through entire ecosystems with varying forest cover.
Further improvements of the predictive accuracy of the simulation include modeling the cloud formation and rainfall that can result as water vapor is released from burning vegetation.
Michels notes that additional refinements to the simulation are also planned and these could include the simulation of sparks flying through the air as well as addressing the fire spread on the ground facilitated by grass, branch litter and undergrowth vegetation.
The scientists plan to further validate their approach using satellite images of real wildfires.
The group’s paper has been titled ‘Fire in Paradise’. It bears reference to the northern Californian town of Paradise that was devastated by a wildfire in November 2018, resulting in more than 80 fatalities.
Image and content: Sandy Huffaker-AFP/KAUST