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'Wind Ninja' software aids in battling mountain wildfires

By Matt Gray, Meteorologist/Reporter, mgray@keci.com
Published On: Jul 24 2013 07:24:50 PM MDT
Updated On: Jul 27 2013 02:57:48 PM MDT
MISSOULA, Mont. -

An innovative piece of software developed in Missoula is helping fire crews determine how a wildfire will spread. At the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, a team of engineers designed a program that gives accurate wind speeds for complex mountain regions.

Computer weather models are essential to accurate weather prediction; but they have their limitations. Weather models use a grid system overlaid on a map. The size of these grids are 8 miles long by 8 miles wide. That's 64 square miles of territory within one grid space. Models like this work well where those 64 square miles are mostly flat, but in mountainous regions there are problems. A lot of rugged territory can fit inside a grid box and will be completely ignored by the computer. An accurate depiction of conditions in a wildfire zone in western Montana needs a model that can depict wind speed and direction in high resolution. Like a megapixel camera, high resolution models have smaller grid boxes which help make a clearer picture of weather conditions.

The need for a high resolution wind model is where Wind Ninja comes in. The program is free to download, easy to use, and provides invaluable information to fire crews.

Wind ninja provides wind at a very high resolution, and wind is one of the most important factors that affect the spread of a fire, so our better ability to predict the wind will allow us to predict the spread of a fire more accurately. -Jason Forthofer, mechanical engineer and developer of Wind Ninja

There are a few patterns that have been revealed with Wind Ninja simulations. When a mountain range creates a barrier for the prevailing wind, the ridge tops of those mountains will often experience the strongest winds. The wind will look for a place to leak out, such as a valley or pass. If not, the only way to get across the mountains is to go right over it. The strength of the wind is dependent on whether the mountains block the wind or provide little resistance. Winds usually blow from the west in Montana, so east-west mountain ranges are prime candidates for high winds on their western faces. A fire on a western mountain face can spell trouble on a windy day.

Wind Ninja has been downloaded hundreds of times and is now being used for more than just predicting fire behavior. Hang Glider pilots use it to find the best place to launch and law enforcement agencies are using it to help Cadaver Dogs get downwind of where they think a body may be located.

With applications in many areas, Wind Ninja is taking weather forecasting to the next level. You can download Wind Ninja on your computer for free here.