Wildland firefighters and fire managers face a daunting challenge. The last century of forest management focused on extinguishing fires as quickly as possible. Known as “wildfire exclusion,” this approach led to a buildup of fuels over time. Today, firefighters and fire managers confront the resulting fuel buildup and need new tools and management methods to control more intense and more frequent wildfires.

Land managers use prescribed burns to clear through the excess fuels, but they still face obstacles in keeping these fires under control to decrease the risk of wildfires and sustain the forest as intended. Even the smallest fluctuations in the surrounding environment, such as changes in wind gust and topography, affect fire behavior. Current fire behavior and spread models cannot predict the complex interactions between fire and atmospheric conditions. SERDP researchers created a modeling tool to address this knowledge gap and assist fire practitioners plan prescribed burns.

Principal Investigator James Furman and his team with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and Los Alamos National Laboratory developed FIRETEC, a physics-based computational fluid-dynamics model, to account for the factors influencing fire behavior (Project Overview). By combining advanced supercomputing techniques and fire/atmosphere modeling, FIRETEC aims to predict fire behavior and the complexity of its interactions with wind speed, forest structure and different fuel types. The team tested FIRETEC at Eglin Air Force Base, which contains longleaf pine forests and open grassy fuels suitable for deploying this tool.

First, the team used field data gathered from the Prescribed Fire Combustion and Atmospheric Dynamics Research Experiments (RxCADRE) to validate the performance of FIRETEC. This step ensured that the FIRETEC-simulated scenarios accurately forecasted wind and fire behavior necessary for managing controlled fires. Afterwards, the team performed 46 prescribed fire simulations for longleaf pine forests to address a variety of questions related to the effects of ignition points and patterns and wind direction.

With FIRETEC, prescribed burn crews gain a better idea of the timing and intensity at which fires should be ignited to clear excess fuels. Dr. Rodman Linn, a member of the FIRETEC project team, expands upon the improvements that advanced modeling tools make to on-the-ground practices, allowing fire managers to adjust prescribed fire plans based upon a variety of situations. 

As a result of the collaboration between fire scientists, fire modelers and fire managers on this project, FIRETEC serves as an important tool for fire-practitioner training. While this model still needs to meet more computational requirements, it revealed deficiencies in current models and accelerated the development of next-generation physics-based models with the data provided. Most notably, FIRETEC simulations are now used as a visual training tool by the Department of Defense (DoD), state agencies, non-profits, and the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center to prepare future fire practitioners.