Fire Modeling: A New Approach to Wildfire Prevention

High school students in a science communication class blog about research from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Guest Blogger
January 31, 2018
Fire modeling can help identify areas where prescribed burns could help save lives and property. Photo: H Dragon via Flickr

By Ellen Jorgensen and Grace James*

As wildfires sweep across the West Coast, it becomes increasingly vital that we understand the cause of these disasters that can leave people homeless, injured, or even dead. As climate change causes temperatures to rise in the hot, arid climate of California, wildfires are becoming increasingly more likely to occur.

Anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is climate change caused by humans. According to multiple studies, ACC is largely responsible for dramatic increases in aridity in the past 30 years. Dry foliage serves as fuel for these fires, but once they’ve gained momentum, they can burn towns or even cities. In the past, fires tended to occur within a period of a few months each year, but that time period has also increased.

A new approach to wildfire prevention, called fire modeling, may be able to identify areas where controlled burns could reduce wildfire danger. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said that “there are many methods [of fire modeling] emerging from many groups.” During a meeting in October, Williams introduced the new science to an audience that consisted of fire modelers, scientists, public land managers, insurance representatives, and many more who are dedicated to preventing the spread of wildfires.

The meeting brought a lot of hope for the regulation of these damaging fires, said Williams. “The discussions exposed a lot of opportunities for fire modeling to be used for pro-active land-management measures.” In time, fire modeling and other innovations will hopefully present new solutions in counteracting these massive wildfires that destroy communities around the world.

*Ellen Jorgensen and Grace James are juniors at the Grace Church School in Manhattan. In Fall 2017, they were part of a Science Communication Class created by Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The class pulled in speakers from Lamont-Doherty and the Earth Institute to introduce students to “real world” communications issues. Students learned about how to communicate science via written work and videos, how to form opinions and debate a science topic, and how to talk about science policy. This blog post was written as a culminating activity in the class.