Fire In The Sandbox

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Monday, June 27, 2011 - 11:24am

New sandbox teaching tool helps firefighters combat wildfires.

Firefighters are using a new tool that resembles a sandbox like children play in to learn more about what a fire can do and where it can go.

Chas Curtis started working on the contraption years ago.

"We were building the first of these in a garage as prototypes," Curtis said.

He went to the Colorado Springs Fire Department recently to set up his Simtable - a 3D interactive fire simulator that literally brings a wildfire to life.

"It's really a paint-by-numbers way of creating a topography map, purple is highest," Curtis said. "What it allows us to do is really understand what the terrain is doing because the terrain is so important for firefighting."

Curtis uses satellite imaging and software his team created to show exactly what the terrain looks like.

"The coolest thing about the box is really getting people to understand fire behavior," he said.

After figuring out the slope of the area, Curtis starts a fire at the exact location of where a real wildfire is burning to track its movements.

He can plug in wind speeds and direction to see what the fire will do next.

"We get to look at a fire as if we were in an air attack platform, one of the airplanes circling looking down on it," Bob Harvey, the lead instructor at the Colorado Wildfire Academy, said.

He uses the Simtable to train firefighters.

"So now we have an air tanker drop, and we'll see if the wind and the topography will let it hold," he said using the simulator.

The Simtable helps him figure out where the need to bulldoze, and where to send fire crews.

The wind is always a tough variable, but Harvey says the tool is extremely accurate.

The Simtable even shows firefighters what the fuels look like in the area.

"Some of these fuels will burn hotter and faster than others," Curtis said.

The simulator shows neighborhoods and which areas should be evacuated.

It also displays roads, allowing enforcement to know where to set up roadblocks.

It's currently being used by fire crews to help battle the massive Wallow Fire in Arizona, and so far, 30 different fire departments and training academies around the country have one of Curtis' Simtables.

Each costs $20,000.

After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the State of California began using the Simtable to prepare for a tsunami on the west coast.

Fire departments can also use the tool to track chemical plumes during a hazmat situation.
 

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