When a wildfire strikes, every second counts. Time lost can all too often be measured in lost life, deforestation, and property damage. Enter the Virtual Fire application, based on Microsoft Bing Maps, ESRI ArcGIS, and other software. This web geographic information system (GIS) platform is designed to support wildfire early warning, control, and civil protection by sharing information and tools produced by the Geography of Natural Disasters Laboratory at the University of the Aegean in Greece.
With these new tools, firefighting personnel, emergency crews, and other authorities can design an operational plan to contain the forest fire, pinpointing the best ways to put it out with new levels of precision. Fire management professionals can locate fire service vehicles and other resources online and in real-time. Fire patrol aircrafts use Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking and communications to send coordinates for each item to Virtual Fire, which depicts them on a web GIS. Cameras can augment this data by transmitting images of high-risk areas into the Virtual Fire system.
One of the compelling advantages of Virtual Fire is that it enables fire management professionals to take advantage of GIS capabilities without extensive training on complicated GIS applications. The platform enables end-users to query the databases and get answers immediately, locate points of interest in high-resolution satellite images, and download information to their portable computers or GPS devices.
But the Virtual Fire application offers services beyond simple coordination of emergency efforts. Remote automatic weather stations and a weather forecasting system based on the SKIRON weather model (developed by the Atmospheric Modeling and Weather Forecasting group at the University of Athens) provide crucial data needed for fire prevention and early warning. Virtual Fire provides geographical representation of the fire risk potential and identifies high-risk areas at different local regions daily, based on a high performance computing (HPC) pilot application that runs on Windows HPC Server.
“Virtual Fire hosts and visualizes models used for predicting forest fire risk and behavior to understand how the fire is likely to spread, based on the actual meteorological data, vegetation, and landscape morphology,” says Kostas Kalabokidis, geography professor at University of the Aegean and principal investigator of the Virtual Fire initiative. “These prediction data—along with a plethora of other information spanning roads, location of water tanks, the positioning of aircrafts and vehicles, vegetation types, and weather data—will be visualized over online maps such as Bing Maps. This will enable fire fighters in control centers, or on-site via handheld devices, to more effectively manage forest fires and deal with any other emergencies situations that may arise.”
The system runs on servers that were donated by Hewlett Packard (three quad-core computing nodes: one head node and two computing nodes). By using the FARSITE and FlamMap fire behavior software (created by Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory), maps are produced on demand to graphically represent the spread and intensity of a forest fire at different times and places. In addition, user feeds and email messages provide effective communication between users and administrators for reporting events.
During the course of its development, the Virtual Fire platform delivered some early successes in combating and even deterring wildfires. On July 8, 2009, an extremely dangerous wildfire broke out on Lesvos Island. The Virtual Fire system—which was at its initial stage, only partly operational with the fire-risk probability index and the weather forecasting and monitoring—provided the fire service with a better grasp of local topography and details of current and imminent weather as well as the high-risk prediction map. This resulted in a prompt initial response that prevented the fire from uncontrolled enlargement and encroachment to nearby sensitive ecological preserves and a military base camp. Virtual Fire successfully predicted the fire risk for the particular area where the event took place, which led to its status as a preferred fire risk prediction tool in 2010.
During the 2010 fire season (from April to October), no serious fire breakouts developed on Lesvos Island, in contrast to other Greek islands such as Samos. Almost all of the fire events were promptly confronted; fires were not permitted to overgrow and they responded to initial efforts to subdue them. Evidence currently under investigation suggests that Virtual Fire played an important role in these improved results, offering the local fire service valuable information to utilize for decision support with their own considerable operational experience and knowledge.
Coordinating Prefecture Board of Lesvos, Mytilene, in Greece
The results of the Virtual Fire initiative were presented July 6, 2010, at the Coordinating Prefecture Board of Lesvos, Mytilene, in Greece. Event attendees included the prefect and counsellors of Lesvos Prefecture, mayors and representatives of the Municipalities of Lesvos Island, heads of Civil Protection, officers and fire fighters of the North Aegean and Mytilene Fire Services, staff of Lesvos Forest Service, commanders and officers of military and public service authorities, representatives of social services and fire-fighting volunteer organizations of Lesvos Island, and the partners of the project from University of the Aegean, University of Athens, Microsoft Research, Microsoft Hellas, and Microsoft Innovation Center—Greece. For more information, read the press release.
—Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Research Program Manager, External Research division of Microsoft Research, Cambridge