LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Back to California now. The devastating fires burning across California have put a spotlight on how to evacuate people. Knowing where a wildfire is going to spread can save lives. Now Californian firefighters are getting a better picture of that, thanks to supercomputers, as Lauren Sommer reports from member station KQED.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: The thing that shocked everyone about the Camp Fire was its Speed.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The winds are too strong. There's fire on the roadways around us.
SOMMER: At one point, the fire was burning 80 acres per minute.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's a report of a possible entrapment. RP advising they cannot evacuate due to fire.
JONATHAN COX: The abnormal is the new normal.
SOMMER: Jonathan Cox is a division chief with Cal Fire.
COX: It's something that, you know, 30-year firefighters have never seen.
SOMMER: Cox says in these kinds of fires, the first few hours are key for predicting how it will spread.
COX: This is an inexact science that is having to be done during the middle of a disaster. So it can be extremely difficult to get a really precise idea of where a fire is going.
SOMMER: They look at wind speed, moisture, terrain and rely on years of experience to make those predictions. But lately, California firefighters have been getting some help from a powerful, new tool.
So does your supercomputer have a name?
ILKAY ALTINTAS: Yes. Our current supercomputer is called Comet.
SOMMER: Ilkay Altintas works at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego. The supercomputer Comet equals the power of 2 million smartphones. It's been using real-time data from reconnaissance flights and NASA satellites to quickly model how a wildfire will behave.
ALTINTAS: So we can understand where the fire will be, its rate of spread, its direction for the next couple of hours. Having that information in your hand as fast as possible is very important.
SOMMER: It's a big step up from the basic software firefighters have had on laptops for about a decade. Cal Fire has been getting these supercomputer forecasts for the Woolsey Fire burning in Southern California. Jonathan Cox of Cal Fire told me from the scene that it's still experimental, but more information is always better.
COX: The more we can do and the more information we can get and decisions we can make based on technology is obviously the future.
SOMMER: But there are some kinds of fires these computer models cannot predict very well, the ones that make their own weather.
JANICE COEN: The winds within a fire can be incredibly intense - 50, 70 mph.
SOMMER: Janice Coen is a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. She says a lot of fires propel themselves forward, even creating fire tornadoes. So she's developing a computer model to predict that.
COEN: I have a lot of hope that we'll be able to understand fires and anticipate their behavior so that we can learn from it and avoid more catastrophes in the future.
SOMMER: Something that's crucial as fires become more extreme in a warming climate. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.
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