Simulators may help Fla. firefighters predict fire behavior


By Katie Fretland
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
Copyright 2007 Sentinel Communications Co.

ORLANDO — With wildfires a recurring threat across the state, University of Central Florida researchers are developing a virtual-reality program to educate the public about the risk to their properties and communities.

The team aims to create interactive simulations that predict the path and speed of wildfires in areas of the state, beginning with Volusia County.

Resembling a computer game, the simulation will give participants about $100 and ask how much they want to "invest" in insurance or prescribed burning around their property, lead computer-science researcher Charles Hughes said Wednesday.

As the simulation runs, participants can see whether fire rages through the land or if their property remains unscathed.

People can choose to invest nothing, and fire may not burn their land. But the outcome will be determined by the simulation's model, which incorporates data on vegetation, weather, housing density and roads in the chosen area.

The researchers began with Volusia County because of its intense wildfires in 1998.

As of Wednesday, 106 wildfires were burning statewide on 134,424 acres, said Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry. Since Jan. 1, fires have burned more than 440,000 acres on state and federal property across the state.

Part of the UCF study will try to determine why people choose or reject protective measures, and whether they are more receptive to virtual presentations of wildfire informa- tion.

"The idea is we can take this technology that is out there, people can experience it, people can play with it, simulate it, and ideally, using the data ... we can provide versions that are more closely calibrated to your residential area," Harrison said. "Then people can see simulations that are much more realistic in terms of what their home environment is."

The researchers hope the public will use the simulation to judge the cost and benefits of fire management in Florida.

The half-hour to hourlong simulation shows how fires are expected to affect the chosen land area during a span of 30 years.

The $680,000 project was financed by the National Science Foundation.

The group aims to provide the simulation in museums, schools and on the Web.

Simulations are scheduled to begin within six months, and research on the project will conclude in about two years.

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