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You, too, can help manage forest fires

Kasra “Kaz” Manavi, director of research and communications at Simtable, gets a sand table ready to demonstrate their ambient computing ability by running a projection of the Medio Fire. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

While the Southwest Area Incident Management Team No. 4 is working to get the Medio Fire under control, a Santa Fe-based company is suggesting that you, too, could assist firefighters battling such blazes by providing them with real time data from your cellphone, computer or tablet.

Simtable already works with fire management agencies around the world and has shipped more than 100 of their “sand tables” that provide 3-D interactive simulations of fires that are used to assist fire officials in determining the best way to manage a blaze.

Using a software program, variables such as wind speed and direction, temperature, terrain and fuel layers, can be introduced to the model, providing fire managers with a sense of how best to attack the fire given the resources they have at their disposal. Combined with a camera and a projector, Simtable allows fire managers to run multiple simulations and make real time adjustments as the fire develops and conditions change.

Kasra Manavi, who heads up the research division for Simtable, says the sand tables (actually filled with crushed walnut husks) provide fire managers with a three-dimensional picture that helps them make strategic decisions about how to attack a wildfire once it breaks out. They can also give local officials a good idea about where flooding could occur in the aftermath.

“A lot of that imagery comes from resources on the fire,” he said. “But you also have this huge swath of citizens that can produce high-quality imagery.”

Stephen Guerin, founder and CEO of Simtable, says the technology exists to incorporate GPS data from the cellphones of citizens; it just hasn’t been used to its full advantage.

“We put more time into capturing Monday Night Football than we do a fire,” he said, alluding to the matrix imagery used in telecasts of football games and other sporting events. Through use of a conglomeration of cameras, fans are treated to replays that provide a 360-degree ambient view of the action.

Guerin says the same type of technology can be used to stitch together data from numerous sources to create three-dimensional maps. But instead of replaying what has already happened, the maps can be used to predict fire behavior under various conditions.

Guerin says that this type of agent-based modeling is part of the “next generation” of fire management.

“Now we have phones to do the mapping,” he said, adding that steps are taken to preserve the privacy of cellphone users.

Simtable also represents a new way to present information, Guerin says, moving away from two-dimensional PowerPoint representations displayed on a screen to a 3-D interactive model.

Besides wildfires, the same type of technology can be applied to other matters of public concern, such as the COVID-19 pandemic

“Fire spreads just like a virus,” Guerin said.

Simtable is part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Team, conducting agent-based modeling of the outbreak and testing strategies for containment.

The company has also performed simulations for Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Marine Corps Special Operations, and serves in an advisory capacity for the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.

The technology can be applied to an unlimited number of scenarios, including simulations of evacuations for such events as the annual burning of Zozobra. But much of its work involves wildfire management, engaging with agencies around the globe, including about 20 forestry divisions in the United States.

Localizing data

Simtable grew out of the RedfishGroup, a company Guerin founded in Santa Fe in 1991 that applied complex adaptive systems to perform Research and Development work.

“I moved to Santa Fe, attracted by the research they were doing at the Santa Fe Institute and Los Alamos in complex systems,” he said of a time when the region was dubbed the “Info Mesa.”

According to his bio on the RedfishGroup website, the company was initially founded to provide special effects animation, video editing and commercial printing. The work has evolved to visualization, modeling and design of self-organizing systems.

“This all relates to complexity and how systems organize from the ground up,” said Guerin, who has lectured on agent-based modeling and visualization extensively, including at the Santa Fe Institute’s Complex Systems Summer School.

Simtable started up about 10 years ago, a beneficiary of a New Mexico Small Business Assistance program. According to a 2010 Journal article, the company received state funding for a project done in conjunction with LANL to predict and display fire behavior.

Porfirio Chavarria, wildland urban interface specialist with the Santa Fe Fire Department, says the city has a Simtable that is used as a training tool for wildland fire crews.

“It gets them to start thinking about different scenarios and how to address them,” he said. “It can be a huge benefit to wildland firefighters.”

But Chavarria said he’s also used the Simtable at public meetings and meetings with neighborhood groups.

“It really helps connect people,” he said of the visual display. “They are able to identify their property, their neighborhoods and their roads, and it gives them the idea of where evacuation routes are and what they can do to prepare their property if a fire breaks out near them. It’s certainly worth a thousand words when they are able to see that property.”

Chavarria said he’s also seen the Simtable used to illustrate what fire managers are trying to achieve with prescribed burns.

A real-life manifestation of the benefit of prescribed burns occurred last week. Fire officials managing the Medio Fire credited a prescribed burn conducted in 2019 for helping defuse the fire and increase its containment.

“On the Medio Fire, we see the advantage of prescribed burns and thinnings,” Guerin said. “When you suppress fires, you get massive fuel buildup and massive fires.

Kasra “Kaz” Manavi, director of research and communications at Simtable, demonstrates their ambient computing ability by running a projection of the Medio Fire on a sand table. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“There’s certainly drought and elevated temperatures, that’s a component. But it’s nothing compared to 100 years of fire suppression,” he said.

There’s much more that can be learned from simulations and modeling, and Guerin believes access to more data from citizens is a good way to do it.

“As a city, we’re learning how to capture fire together,” he said. “We as a community need to be able to manage our forests.”

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