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October 14, 2021

NSF Awards $5M to AI-Powered Wildfire Management Tool

Image courtesy of WIFIRE Lab.

With another brutal wildfire season in the western U.S. beginning to wane in the face of rains and cooler temperatures, researchers are still racing to develop more effective means of wildfire mitigation for seasons to come. Now, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $5 million to UC San Diego in support of its AI-enabled BurnPro3D decision support platform, which the San Diego researchers hope will help fire managers plan controlled burns and fight ongoing wildfires.

BurnPro3D operates through WIFIRE Commons, a data- and model-sharing project run by researchers from UC San Diego, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and dozens of others. WIFIRE Commons aims to enable “AI-driven societal and scientific wildland fire applications[.]” 

“BurnPro3D harnesses the data and AI capabilities in WIFIRE Commons for optimization of fire mitigation efforts,” explained Ilkay Altintas, chief data science officer and director of the WIFIRE Lab at the San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC), in an interview with SDSC’s Cynthia Dillon. “The NSF convergence accelerator program is all about innovation for societal impact. We have been developing key infrastructure and partnerships in this area for the last eight years, and more recently working with our BurnPro3D collaborators to include next-generation fire science and AI in various aspects of the project.  We are looking forward to working with the broader community to maximize the impact of this work.”

BurnPro3D combines the WIFIRE Commons AI fire management tools with novel ensemble simulations using a coupled fire-atmospheric model to capture how mitigation efforts or controlled burns would affect fires in a given area. This is challenging work, requiring the integration of a wide variety of data sources, physics-based simulations, and deep learning strategies – not to mention the need for easy end use by stakeholders like land managers and firefighters.

These kinds of major efforts, however, are necessary to achieve the changes in wildfire management that could save forests – and lives – in the 21st century. “We must act now to ramp up prescribed burns from one million acres to ten million acres annually in the West,” Altintas said. “And BurnPro3D provides the technology to facilitate this effectively.”

“The truth is that more well-planned fire is needed to solve the western wildfire problem, and technology can help us safely plan those good fires,” added Kevin Hiers, former head of the Tall Timbers Research Station (TTRS). “Unfortunately, the gap between the high-tech innovations and fire managers has gotten bigger, which limits applications of new models or AI to solve this problem. The BurnPro3D and WIFIRE Commons are designed to bridge that gap. We are excited to work with managers and fire scientists to apply these next generation tools to help safely plan prescribed fires and optimize their placement on the landscape for maximum risk reduction.”