Firing up Fitzroy

Published Forestry Bulletin – 8 December 2014

Forest owners can hold the power of NIWA's weather supercomputer 'Fitzroy' in thier hands in order to help prevent and contorl rural fires.

 NIWA and Scion scientists have worked over the past three years to research and set up a new national Fire Weather System (FWSYS) for fire weather information, forecasting changes in wind direction and strength – both of which are crucial when fighting fires – and fire danger conditions throughout the country.

The system accesses real-time information from a denser network of weather stations. This information is then crunched by technology developed by NIWA's climate modellers and meteorologists and the forest fire research team at Scion.

Scion's senior rural fire scientist Grant Pearce has been involved in rural fire research for 20 years. He explains that while information was previously available to fire managers, it had to be obtained from three separate sources that were based on old technology.

"The new system has been set up as a one-stop shop for fire weather information. It's basically a big software package, using a much more powerful computer to pull information from a bigger network of weather stations, resulting in more accurate data."

According to Pearce, the accuracy of fire weather forecasts is significantly improved through the use of the NIWA EcoConnect climate forecasting platform, which has better weather data quality checking and models conditions five kilometres apart – or as close as 1.5 km, if required.

About 200 weather stations, operated by the National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA), Rural Fire Authorities, forestry companies, regional councils and NIWA, are in the network and Pearce expects that more will be added from other networks in time. These are being upgraded with the latest technology, including new modems, to enable them to be interrogated over the internet by Fitzroy.

At regular intervals the supercomputer uses the computational power of 7000 laptops to crunch data on wind, temperature, humidity and rainfall readings from the stations – along with other information from satellites, ships, weather balloons and so on. This is combined with Scion's latest models of potential fire behaviour to make predictions to help those involved in rural fire prevention and control.

The key thing for Pearce is that the new fire network system is both accurate and flexible; being able to incorporate future developments in science as more is learned about fire in New Zealand vegetation types.

Fire managers and forest owners who have installed the FWSYS software onto their own computers can then tailor it to individual situations, to alert them – even by email or text message to smartphones, if required – if threshold levels have been or are forecast to be breached. Parameters can be set and reset as needed, for example, to warn of extreme weather or fire danger conditions, or to inform the need to move from open to restricted fire seasons as relevant fire danger triggers are met.

"The system is working well and fire managers are pleased with the result," says Pearce.

Chair of the FOA's fire committee Grant Dodson agrees, saying, "It's a great bit of work and a very useful piece of software."

The main advantage of the system lies in the provision of improved fire weather information to forest owners, land owners and the public. This also increases their awareness of – and response to – prevailing fire danger conditions, resulting in fewer fire starts and escapes, lower fire-fighting costs and reduced environmental impact.

However, according to Dodson, in addition to fire forecasting at their fingertips, forest owners also get other benefits from the system.

"These include the forecasting of wind strengths and direction, which is very useful for improving the safety of tree felling and harvesting work, and for checking weather conditions for aerial work, including spraying." He thoroughly recommends that, if they haven't already, forest owners install the programme and use it.

The research was carried out in 2012 and early 2013 and the new network came into operation in August 2013. NIWA provided the systems and operating framework, weather modelling, data control and climatology made accessible through its 18 tonne Wellington-based supercomputer, nicknamed 'Fitzroy', while Scion provided expertise on the latest fire danger rating science.

Funding came from the NRFA, Department of Conservation, Local Government, Ministry of Defence, the Forest Growers Levy and the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment. As part of the project, the Canadian fire danger rating system was studied and found to be suitable for New Zealand forest conditions.