Two University of Nevada, Reno faculty are part of an interdisciplinary team studying the devastating Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire on the Hawaiian island of Maui, with the objective of preventing similar disasters.
Civil & Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Hamed Ebrahimian and Physics Assistant Professor Neil Lareau are teaming with researchers at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and the University at Buffalo (UB) on the project. The team is gathering fire data from multiple sources, including social media and time-stamped photos, then processing the information using AI-enhanced methods for modeling and simulation research. The goal is to provide information that will assist emergency response personnel in making decisions that will reduce the likelihood of major loss of life and property damage.
The Lahaina fire killed at least 97 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings.
Led by the Hawai’i researchers, the team received a $200,000 grant through the National Science Foundation’s Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program to study the fire.
This work aligns with the College of Engineering’s ‘equitable infrastructure’ research pillar, which focuses on engineering and designing equitable community infrastructure to mitigate cascading local, regional and global hazards.
Fire analysis: “down-slope windstorm”
The grant was awarded in mid-September, but the Nevada researchers, along with their UB colleagues and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., were gathering data and modeling the Lahaina fire days after the event.
UB used a tool it created called Streamlined Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Tracing (SWUIFT) to simulate the fire in Lahaina.
Joining the effort were researchers at NCAR, which generated the wind input for the model, as well as the Nevada team, which analyzed wind flow and processed the information.
“The simulated wind flow has the tell-tale signs of a ‘down-slope’ windstorm, which is a well-known culprit in high-impact wildfires, including past fires like the Camp Fire in California and the Marshall Fire in Colorado,” Lareau said. “What is unique in this case is that after the initial westward fire run into town, the winds reverse direction and become extremely variable, which drove the fire north, south and east, making escape extremely challenging.”
The need for ‘prime-time’ emergency response management technologies
That analysis and other data can help researchers better understand wildfires, but raises another issue: according to Ebrahimian, fire response technology may need to be further developed to adequately address today’s massive wildfires.
“We are living with wildfires and need to find ways to co-exist and thrive with them,” Ebrahimian said. “The increasing pace of wildfire activities and impacts have outgrown our pace of technology development and adoption. There is currently a gap between available research capabilities and operational digital technologies that can be used for wildfire response simulation, prediction and situational awareness.
“In our simulations,” Ebrahimian continued, “we were able to observe the unfolding mechanism of the Lahaina fire disaster. Timely dissemination of the information could have been vital to enable informed decision-making to enhance emergency response management. This underscores the need to join forces and develop prime-time technologies that can move the needle.”