The wildfire burned through pine trees only a few miles away from Martin City, Montana, just outside of Glacier National Park. It was growing steadily, but fire managers had reason to think the mile-wide Hungry Horse Reservoir would act as a buffer and protect the town. Still, they sent a team of responders to the other side, just in case.

Soon enough, a thunderstorm intensified the winds and sent firebrands flying across the northern tip of the lake, setting a new blaze. Firefighters responded immediately to protect a campground and homes before it could spread to the town.

The decision to send a crew across the reservoir in advance of the flames wasn’t just a lucky guess. Software helped responders see that strong winds could spread the fire. Then, when those conditions kicked in, they were ready. Property, trees and most important, lives, were saved.

Mark Finney, a researcher with the US Forest Service, analyzed the projections for the 2003 blaze near Hungry Horse with FarSite, a fire prediction program he wrote in 1992 that’s still used today. The software doesn’t turn fire analysts into fortune tellers — Finney says he didn’t know for sure the fire would jump the lake — but it lets them prepare for possibilities.

“That wasn’t a forecast that it would happen,” he says. “It was a scenario that showed what could happen.”

Programmers have been using software to analyze wildland fires and eventually make projections of where they might spread next, since computers came into existence. But following the fire at Hungry Horse, which was part of the larger Blackfoot Lake Complex Fire, the software programs written by government agencies and private companies for fire response teams have become more efficient and precise. Researchers are now creating systems that will more accurately predict fire movement, sometimes several days into the future, while computing labs are streamlining the way crucial information about fires is shared in real time. First responders can then adjust their projections within minutes — rather than hours — giving firefighters more time to respond to a blaze and stop it from spreading.

READ MORE: https://www.cnet.com/features/mapping-a-wildfires-next-move-is-getting-easier-thanks-to-computers/

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