skip to main content

Title: Evaluating the Ability of FARSITE to Simulate Wildfires Influenced by Extreme, Downslope Winds in Santa Barbara, California
Extreme, downslope mountain winds often generate dangerous wildfire conditions. We used the wildfire spread model Fire Area Simulator (FARSITE) to simulate two wildfires influenced by strong wind events in Santa Barbara, CA. High spatial-resolution imagery for fuel maps and hourly wind downscaled to 100 m were used as model inputs, and sensitivity tests were performed to evaluate the effects of ignition timing and location on fire spread. Additionally, burn area rasters from FARSITE simulations were compared to minimum travel time rasters from FlamMap simulations, a wildfire model similar to FARSITE that holds environmental variables constant. Utilization of two case studies during strong winds revealed that FARSITE was able to successfully reconstruct the spread rate and size of wildfires when spotting was minimal. However, in situations when spotting was an important factor in rapid downslope wildfire spread, both FARSITE and FlamMap were unable to simulate realistic fire perimeters. We show that this is due to inherent limitations in the models themselves, related to the slope-orientation relative to the simulated fire spread, and the dependence of ember launch and land locations. This finding has widespread implications, given the role of spotting in fire progression during extreme wind events.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Each year, wildfires ravage the western U.S. and change the lives of millions of inhabitants. Situated in southern California, coastal Santa Barbara has witnessed devastating wildfires in the past decade, with nearly all ignitions started by humans. Therefore, estimating the risk imposed by unplanned ignitions in this fire-prone region will further increase resilience toward wildfires. Currently, a fire-risk map does not exist in this region. The main objective of this study is to provide a spatial analysis of regions at high risk of fast wildfire spread, particularly in the first two hours, considering varying scenarios of ignition locations and atmospheric conditions. To achieve this goal, multiple wildfire simulations were conducted using the FARSITE fire spread model with three ignition modeling methods and three wind scenarios. The first ignition method considers ignitions randomly distributed in 500 m buffers around previously observed ignition sites. Since these ignitions are mainly clustered around roads and trails, the second method considers a 50 m buffer around this built infrastructure, with ignition points randomly sampled from within this buffer. The third method assumes a Euclidean distance decay of ignition probability around roads and trails up to 1000 m, where the probability of selection linearly decreases further from the transportation paths. The ignition modeling methods were then employed in wildfire simulations with varying wind scenarios representing the climatological wind pattern and strong, downslope wind events. A large number of modeled ignitions were located near the major-exit highway running north–south (HWY 154), resulting in more simulated wildfires burning in that region. This could impact evacuation route planning and resource allocation under climatological wind conditions. The simulated fire areas were smaller, and the wildfires did not spread far from the ignition locations. In contrast, wildfires ignited during strong, northerly winds quickly spread into the wildland–urban interface (WUI) toward suburban and urban areas.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Coupled fire‐atmosphere models often struggle to simulate important fire processes like fire generated flows, deep flaming fronts, extreme updrafts, and stratospheric smoke injection during large wildfires. This study uses the coupled fire‐atmosphere model, WRF‐Fire, to examine the sensitivities of some of these phenomena to the modeled total fuel load and its consumption. Specifically, the 2020 Bear Fire and 2021 Caldor Fire in California's Sierra Nevada are simulated using three fuel loading scenarios (1X, 4X, and 8X LANDFIRE derived surface fuel), while controlling the fire rate of spread using observations. This approach helps isolate the fuel loading and consumption needed to produce fire‐generated winds and plume rise comparable to radar observations of these events. Increasing fuel loads and corresponding fire residence time in WRF‐Fire leads to deep plumes in excess of 10 km, strong vertical velocities of 40–45 m s−1, and combustion fronts several kilometers in width (in the along wind direction). These results indicate that LANDFIRE‐based surface fuel loads in WRF‐Fire likely under‐represent fuel loading, having significant implications for simulating landscape‐scale wildfire processes, associated impacts on spread, and fire‐atmosphere feedbacks.

    more » « less
  3. We analyzed meteorological conditions that occurred during the December 2021 Boulder, Colorado, downslope windstorm. This event is of particular interest due to the ignition and spread of the Marshall Fire, which quickly became the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Observations indicated a rapid onset of fast winds with gusts as high as 51 m/s that generally remained confined to the east-facing slopes and foothills of the Rockies, similar to previous Boulder windstorms. After about 12 h, the windstorm shifted into a second, less intense phase. Midtropospheric winds above northwestern Colorado weakened prior to the onset of strong surface winds and the event strength started waning as stronger winds moved back into the area. Forecasts from NOAA high-resolution operational models initialized more than a few hours prior to windstorm onset did not simulate the start time, development rate and/or maximum strength of the windstorm correctly, and day-ahead runs even failed to develop strong downslope windstorms at all. Idealized modeling confirmed that predictability was limited by errors on the synoptic scale affecting the midtropospheric wind conditions representing the Boulder windstorm’s inflow environment. Gust forecasts for this event were critically evaluated. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Extreme wind‐driven autumn wildfires are hazardous to life and property, due to their rapid rate of spread. Recent catastrophic autumn wildfires in the western United States co‐occurred with record‐ or near‐record autumn fire weather indices that are a byproduct of extreme fuel dryness and strong offshore dry winds. Here, we use a formal, probabilistic, extreme event attribution analysis to investigate the anthropogenic influence on extreme autumn fire weather in 2017 and 2018. We show that while present‐day anthropogenic climate change has slightly decreased the prevalence of strong offshore downslope winds, it has increased the likelihood of extreme fire weather indices by 40% in areas where recent autumn wind‐driven fires have occurred in northern California and Oregon. The increase was primarily through increased autumn fuel aridity and warmer temperatures during dry wind events. These findings illustrate that anthropogenic climate change is exacerbating autumn fire weather extremes that contribute to high‐impact catastrophic fires in populated regions of the western US.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Downslope wind‐driven fires have resulted in many of the wildfire disasters in the western United States and represent a unique hazard to infrastructure and human life. We analyze the co‐occurrence of wildfires and downslope winds across the western United States (US) during 1992–2020. Downslope wind‐driven fires accounted for 13.4% of the wildfires and 11.9% of the burned area in the western US yet accounted for the majority of local burned area in portions of southern California, central Washington, and the front range of the Rockies. These fires were predominantly ignited by humans, occurred closer to population centers, and resulted in outsized impacts on human lives and infrastructure. Since 1999, downslope wind‐driven fires have accounted for 60.1% of structures and 52.4% of human lives lost in wildfires in the western US. Downslope wind‐driven fires occurred under anomalously dry fuels and exhibited a seasonality distinct from other fires—occurring primarily in the spring and fall. Over 1992–2020, we document a 25% increase in the annual number of downslope wind‐driven fires and a 140% increase in their respective annual burned area, which partially reflects trends toward drier fuels. These results advance our understanding of the importance of downslope winds in driving disastrous wildfires that threaten populated regions adjacent to mountain ranges in the western US. The unique characteristics of downslope wind‐driven fires require increased fire prevention and adaptation strategies to minimize losses and incorporation of changing human‐ignitions, fuel availability and dryness, and downslope wind occurrence to elucidate future fire risk.

    more » « less