Earth, wind and fire: Predicting the path of a wild one

Thursday, December 1, 2005
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According to the Texas Forest Service, 120 of Texas' 254 counties are under outdoor burning bans, set by county judges or county commissioners, because of extremely dry conditions. Nearly half of the state was experiencing moderate to extreme drought as of mid-November, according to TexasWaterInfo.net, and the drought is predicted to persist or intensify in many stricken areas through winter.

This past weekend, the extremely dry conditions, combined with strong winds, sparked grass fires in many North Texas counties.

A geographical information system, however, can determine the burn path of a grass fire, giving nearby residents warning before the fire spreads to their homes, says a University of North Texas biology professor.

Earl Zimmerman creates a fire model, which he describes as a "dress rehearsal" for an actual fire using a geographic information system. The system, commonly known as GIS, is a computer package that overlays multiple layers of information to build a pattern.

He creates a fire model by programming various conditions -- such as vegetation types, wind velocity and direction, geological strata, altitude, fire ignition points and human population sites -- programmed onto the virtual GIS landscape to determine the most likely path a fire will take.

"If the fire's path is known in advance, residents in its way can be alerted to the impending threat," Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman has provided information from his GIS work to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist in fighting fires.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108