SJSU Fire Weather Research Workshop Highlights Advances in Wildfire Prediction and Tracking

Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

Photo courtesy of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

California braces for yet another menacing fire season

Twice a month, San José State researchers collect samples from local vegetation, or “fuels”—and what they found for April was foreboding: Craig Clements, director of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, told KPIX 5 News last week.

“This is the time of year when the fuels should have the most moisture content of the season, and they’re actually the lowest we’ve ever measured for April,” he said in the news report.

But there’s hope: Fire prediction and tracking tools are advancing—a key takeaway from SJSU’s Fire Weather Research Workshop held April 8-9—and the university is leading the effort in providing fire management agencies with state-of-the-art resources to help curb the spread of wildfires.

The virtual event drew hundreds of researchers, students and fire management stakeholders from 20 countries to discuss the latest research and technology on fighting wildfires.

On the same day, California Gov. Gavin Newson announced a $536 million plan to prepare the state for the upcoming fire season. The California Legislature passed the package on April 12, and Newsom signed it April 13.

Intel from above the flames

Once a windstorm and an ignition come together, there’s little to be done.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop that fire,” explained Clements.

The best shot is to try to contain the fire with an “initial attack,” he continued. “That’s where remote sensing technology comes in, because the sooner you can detect the fire, the faster you can get into it.”

WRF-SFIRE is a forecast and modeling system—and a crucial resource to help curb the spread of wildfires—that relies on remote sensing technology. Developed and operated by SJSU, the system pairs data from satellite and infrared imaging with a simulation tool, and it combines a weather forecast model (Weather Research Forecast) with a fire-spread model (SFIRE).

During the workshop, faculty shared updates on WRF-SFIRE, including the addition of wildfire smoke dispersion forecasts, improved data input and analysis, more options for running simulations, and even a mobile-friendly interface.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor of wildfire modeling, shared how WRF-SFIRE now can model smoke behavior based on fire-spread predictions.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor of wildfire modeling, shared how WRF-SFIRE now can model smoke behavior based on fire-spread predictions.

But while tracking and prediction technology is advancing, not enough satellite and infrared imaging data is being gathered in day-to-day fire management operations, noted Miguel Valero Peréz, assistant professor of wildfire behavior and remote sensing at SJSU. He said that bringing that process up to speed is crucial and requires widespread collaboration.

“We need to collaborate with everyone—fire management agencies, academia, industry. We can only solve this problem if we work together,” Valero Peréz emphasized.

Solving a bigger problem

Newsom’s package may be able to help the state get ahead of the game as another dangerous fire season approaches. His plan provides funding to invest in workforce training, vegetation and terrain management, home protection and more.

But the effort to track conditions needs to be year-round, Clements told NBC Bay Area News.

“We need to be doing predictions for the conditions that would lead up to a severe fire season, so using the state-of-the-science modeling we have at San José State and running that operationally throughout the whole season versus a fire here and a fire there like we usually do,” he explained on the news report.

Joaquin Ramirez is principal consultant with Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company that partners with SJSU by using WRF-SFIRE to assist management agencies like Cal Fire during fire season. In 2020, they offered Cal Fire support with more than 9,000 fires.

Wildfires in 2020 California

Joaquin Ramirez of Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company, provided a look back at 2020 fires in California.

He said the workshop is proof of the exciting research and technology in progress, but that there’s still much to do when it comes to solving the wider problem.

“An all-hands job is needed, starting from supporting citizens that understand that we have to live with fire in a smarter way—and that we need to support scientists as much as we support our firefighters.”

A community service

Clements said that while the workshop is about exchanging research and ideas, it’s also about providing information directly to those fighting fires on the front lines.

Because it’s free and several topics are covered in a shorter amount of time, it can be a good alternative to a conference, which might not always be an option for fire management agency employees.

“It’s part of our service to the community to host this workshop and to have it to be free to anyone,” he explained. “It’s about accessibility to the knowledge.”

WRF-SFIRE is available on mobile platforms

WRF-SFIRE is now accessible on mobile devices, a new addition to the system by wildfire researchers at SJSU.

Martin Kurtovich, senior utilities engineer for California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), said their staff participated to engage on important fire science topics—particularly wildfire modeling and predictions for forecasting future fire conditions.

He added, “I appreciate the important work being done at SJSU in not only conducting important research on California wildfires but also training future leaders in wildfire management.”

Learn more about SJSU’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center here.

SJSU Establishes the Nation’s Largest Academic Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

Largest Cluster Hire of Wildfire Scientists at a University

Photo: Robert Bain/San José State University

San José State University has established the largest academic Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC) in the United States with five new tenure-track faculty members and millions of dollars in new technology. The purpose of the new center is to serve as the leading institution in California, providing modern, state-of-knowledge on wildfire science and management.

“In just the past few years, wildfires have scorched California’s landscape, burning millions of acres, injuring and killing hundreds of people and causing billions of dollars in damages. Dealing with this challenge requires interdisciplinary solutions,” said College of Science Dean Michael Kaufman. “The advanced wildfire research enabled by this new center is needed now more than ever before.”

WIRC is housed in the College of Science and will work through an interdisciplinary model with the College of Social Sciences and the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering. WIRC’s new integrated and interdisciplinary academic team specialize in the following areas:

  • Fire Ecology (Biology)
  • Fire and Fluid Dynamics (Mechanical Engineering)
  • Wildfire Behavior Modeling and Wildfire Meteorology (Meteorology)
  • Wildfire Remote Sensing (Meteorology)
  • Wildfire Management and Policy (Environmental Studies)

Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science and Director of the Fire Weather Research Lab Craig Clements will serve as director of the new Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center. Four newly hired tenure-track faculty members join him in wildfire science and management:

Adam Kochanski

Assistant Professor of Wildfire Meteorology

His research interests include fire-atmosphere interactions, including air quality impacts of wildland fires. He is an international leader in wildfire modeling with extensive experience in running numerical simulations of fire, smoke and regional climate on high-performance computing platforms.

Amanda M. Stasiewicz

Assistant Professor of Wildfire Management in the Department of Environmental Studies

Her research focuses on the human dimensions of wildfire, community adaptation to wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface, and citizen-agency conflict and cooperation during wildfire preparation, prevention and wildfire response (e.g., suppression, evacuation).

Ali Tohidi

Assistant Professor of Fire and Fluid Dynamics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

His research interests are at the nexus of experimental, data-driven and mathematical modeling of nonlinear spatiotemporal processes across different scales. His current research focus is understanding wildfire spread mechanisms, including firebrand (ember) generation, transport and spot fire ignition, as well as applications of data-driven methods in physics-based models.

Kate Wilkin

Assistant Professor of Fire Ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences

She has nearly 20 years of experience in natural resource management, outreach and research. Her research focuses on living sustainability in fire-prone ecosystems: wildfire recovery of communities and natural lands, prescribed fire on private lands and wildfire mitigation, including fire-resistant homes, defensible space and fuel treatments.

A fifth tenure-track faculty member in wildfire remote sensing with expertise in monitoring wildfire behavior and developing novel airborne remote sensing technologies will join the team in January 2021.

These new faculty members will join three other faculty members at SJSU:

Craig Clements

Director of the WIRC and Fire Weather Research Laboratory and Professor of Meteorology

He has more than 20 years of experience designing meteorological and wildfire field experiments. His research aims to better understand the complexities of fire weather in mountain areas, including extreme fire behavior in canyons and wildfire plume dynamics. His work has pioneered the deployment of novel observation systems to wildfire incidents to study fire weather phenomena.

Patrick Brown

Assistant Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science

He is a climate scientist who conducts research on weather and climate and how they interact with society. He currently conducts research on the relationship between climate and wildfire risk.

Mike Voss

Staff Meteorologist and Technician; Lecturer in the Meteorology and Climate Science Department

He has more than 25 years of experience forecasting California weather, focusing on fire weather and extreme weather events.

“San José State is bringing together some of the top academic experts in the world who have extensive experience in wildfire science, management, climate and meteorological research,” said Clements. “This is truly a world-class group that is passionate about advancing wildfire science.”

The WIRC will employ an advanced, next-generation, wildfire-atmosphere forecasting system and a suite of mobile assets to conduct research in the field. These assets include two customized trucks equipped with Doppler radar and one truck equipped with Doppler LiDAR. These are the only mobile fire weather units in the United States. They are also the only fire weather research units in the nation qualified to go behind fire lines.

“These new technologies will strengthen the prediction, monitoring and management of wildfire throughout California,” said Clements.

“San José State University’s initial investment in the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center demonstrates our commitment to advancing wildfire research and to the state of California as it faces one of the most pressing problems the 21st century,” said Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. “I am confident there is more to come.”

SJSU Workshop Shares Latest Research with Fire Agencies and Others

SJSU's first-ever Fire Weather Research Workshop drew fire agencies, community members and others to learn about the latest scientific research on fire weather.

SJSU’s first-ever Fire Weather Research Workshop drew fire agencies, community members and others to learn about the latest scientific research on fire weather.

San Jose State University hosted the Fire Weather Research Workshop April 26 with emergency operations personnel, researchers, students and community members gathered to learn about the latest work around understanding wildfires in the region. Associate Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science Craig Clements, who is also the director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at SJSU, said the all-day workshop was the first of its kind in the state.

Craig Clements, associate professor of meteorology and climate science and director of SJSU's Fire Weather Research Laboratory. Photo by David Schmitz

Craig Clements, associate professor of meteorology and climate science and director of SJSU’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory.
Photo by David Schmitz

“We are bringing together stakeholders from fire agencies, community members, homeowners to learn about cutting-edge research,” Clements said, during a morning session of the workshop.

Heather Kane, ’19 Meteorology, presented her thesis work about how different fire weather indexes compared to the raw data from four recent fires–the Thomas Fire, the Mendocino Fire, the Camp Fire and the Carr Fire. The indexes are meant to predict what conditions will lead to a wildfire to grow to a point of being unmanageable.

“The Camp Fire was an extreme wind event,” she said. “All three indexes responded well to the wind spike. But fires are part of an earth system, so it is not solely about weather. We have to look at topography as well to determine when a fire will become large or unmanageable.”

Kane, who plans to complete her thesis work in the fall, is currently employed with Southern California Edison as a meteorologist.

“I really enjoy emergency management and I feel like what I’m doing matters,” she said. “I am grateful I chose SJSU because it has opened my eyes to a different world. I can help people with the skills I have.”

Kane was one of 17 presenters who included graduate students, professors, researchers and emergency responders.

“The workshop is great and we are learning different things,” Kane said. “Operational workers and scientists are talking together. We have a common goal to help people–saving their homes and their lives. We do it from a distance and they do it on the front lines.”

The workshop was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at SJSU.