Forecasting wildfires: Scientists mapping fuel sources around Bay Area

Wildfires

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KRON) — Wildfire experts with Cal Fire and Stanford University are using “old school” and “new school” technology to map how much fuel is out there for future fires.

Vegetation moisture levels in some parts of the Bay Area are at historic lows because of a lack of rain last winter, and high summer temperatures are evaporating away what little moisture remains in plants.

“The drought in California is looking absolutely worse, unfortunately, than last year. It’s really an exceptional drought, even by the standards of all the droughts that we’ve been having in recent years,” said Alexandra Konings, an ecohydrologist with Stanford University.

Stanford University’s wildfire research team is mapping moisture in vegetation.

Fire forecasting involves tricky complex variables, but the two biggest predictors are weather and fuel.

Last summer, a lightning storm ignited the Lightning Complex fires in so many places that Cal Fire’s resources were overwhelmed trying to respond to all of them at the same time.

While weather for the entire summer is tough to forecast, scientists can look at how dry the vegetation is right now to know where wildfires will burn most rapidly if fuel is ignited.

Cal Fire CZU said it is using “old school” technology by clipping branches and leaves around San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to be analyzed.

Twice a month, crews gather coyote brush, manzanita, and chamise to compile concrete data.

They discovered that moisture levels in vegetation have dropped dramatically, particularly in the Pulgas and Saratoga Summit areas, with historic lows recorded for the month of May.

Stanford University’s wildfire research team is using “new school” technology combining Artificial Intelligence with satellite data. 

“How dry a piece of vegetation is will influence how easily it ignites, and once it ignites, how easily it continues to burn and spread. We have developed a technique to look at basically how much water is in vegetation. The technique we developed to do that relies on satellite data of different electromagnetic frequencies,” Konings said.

Western Contra Costa County and Alameda County stood out for having the driest vegetation compared to the rest of the Bay Area.

However, there is plenty of fuel in every part of the Bay Area that, once it ignites, could erupt into a large wildfire.

“Honestly the entire Bay Area is at risk,” Konings said.

“But just because it’s exceptionally dry, doesn’t mean you that you get a wildfire. There is a huge luck component that is almost impossible to predict relative to where you get sparks. So it’s very hard to say exactly which areas have higher risks than others,” Konings said.

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