Turning up the heat - Using supercomputing to tackle forest fires

Posted on: April 24, 2015 by Xavier Vigouroux

Supercomputing is impacting our daily lives. From predicting the weather and boosting competitiveness in aircraft and car design to experimenting in astrophysics and improving drilling techniques in Oil & Gas, supercomputers are increasingly influencing research projects across multiple industries.

Another scenario where the application of supercomputing is proving to be critical is in fighting forest fires. Destroying half a million hectares of wild land across Europe each year alone, forest fires not only cause loss of life but also carry serious economic repercussions. Using supercomputing, we can create models of how fires react to certain conditions and predict where and when they’re likely to occur and how they will burn.

In 2006, 60 square kilometers of Corsican forest was destroyed by a fire that raged for four days. Using a brand new “OCCIGEN” supercomputer designed by Bull and hosted by CINES, a team of scientists from Laboratoires CNRS SPE(Université de Corse), LA (Université deToulouse) and CNRM (Météo-France) simulated the wildfire after it took place. Such simulations are helping fire fighters to identify the location of future fires, limit the destruction and ultimately, save human lives.

Looking up close vs. far and wide

To make an effective prediction, the supercomputing model has to look at the fire from both a micro and macro level. On a small scale, measured in meters, the simulation deals with the dynamic of the fire. The front of the fire generates huge amounts of energy, as the air is much hotter in this area. This creates local convection and spreads the flames. Analysing the ground gradient and vegetation is key to predicting the extent of the fire, as well as the type of tree, as this material provides the fuel for the fire.

On a wider scale, measured in kilometers, the weather conditions, such as wind speed and direction, humidity and air temperature have to be taken into account and integrated into the model.

The fire itself – comprising the smoke, heat and chemical components – impacts the atmospheric conditions that in turn, have an effect on the fire. Because of this, the two simulations have to be “coupled” in such a way that at each time step, they exchange the result of their computation.

Supercomputing is already pushing the frontiers of science and technology, and in this particular case, helped the team to simulate all aspects of the Corsican fire after it occurred. The model was able to analyse how the fire changed direction so that in future, firefighters could be accurately placed to tackle a blaze. The next challenge to address will be in beginning the simulation as soon as a fire is detected, enabling fire fighters to get to the right place and tackle the blaze in real-time. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, but when we’re talking about saving lives and defending the environment, pushing the boundaries of supercomputing applications is incredibly valuable.

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About Xavier Vigouroux

Director of the Center For Excellence in Parallel programming,, Distinguished Expert and member of the Scientific Community
Xavier Vigouroux, after a PhD from Ecole normale Superieure de Lyon in Distributed computing, worked for several major companies in different positions. He has now been working for Bull for 9 years. He led the HPC benchmarking team for the first five years, then in charge of the "Education and Research " market for HPC, he is now managing the "Center for Excellence in Parallel Programming".