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UNR, DRI work to predict fire tornadoes; public asked to help

Erin Greenwald submitted this photo of the fire tornado caused by the Loyalton Fire.
Erin Greenwald submitted this photo of the fire tornado caused by the Loyalton Fire.(Erin Greenwald)
Published: Oct. 9, 2021 at 3:02 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) -Research to develop ways to warn firefighters and the public about weather-generated hazards like fire tornadoes is underway at the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute.

Researchers will use citizen scientists to help crowd-source data.

The efforts come as extreme wildfires pose greater threats in the United States, causing property damage and death.

“There have been decades of success in using radar and satellite observations to issue life-saving warnings for severe weather; for fire-generated tornadic vortices and explosive storm clouds these same tools show remarkable, yet incompletely realized, potential,” Neil Lareau, atmospheric scientist from UNR’s Physics Department and lead for the research, said in a statement. “To fully realize this potential, new physical and conceptual models are needed for interpreting radar and satellite observations of the wildfire environment.”

Lareau and colleague Meghan Collins of DRI will identify common factors contributing to the fire-generated tornados. They will use satellite and weather radar and combine it with crowd-sourced data of ash fallen from the fire. They are launching a new citizen science project called Ashfall Citizen Science. These crowd-sourced data will help improve the understanding of wildfire plumes by better documenting the size and shape of fire ash lofted into the sky.

The project will engage the public in wildfire science in two ways:

  • Develop middle-school in-class lessons focused on fire-generated weather
  • Use a citizen science campaign with a new web app to collect photographs of the ash and debris that “rain” down from wildfire plumes.

The citizen science campaign is expected to reach thousands of users every year. The in-classroom program may reach 500 students per year.

“Our team will be sharing the science behind wildland fire with middle school classrooms across the region as part of this project,” Collins said.

So far, since starting the impromptu project in 2020, nearly 20,000 people have engaged the project, with about 100 photographs submitted from the U.S. west.

“We’re looking for participation anywhere in the western states, from Idaho to Arizona,” Lareau said. “Community science, also known as citizen science, is important to this project. Gathering this kind of data over time and in many places would be prohibitive otherwise.”

Citizen science capability is well-suited for wildfires, which are hard to predict in their timing and location, and may thereby enhance the team’s ability to quantify fire-generated weather phenomena and their impacts, organizers said. Citizen science has been used in other analogous applications, including to obtain observations of ashfall from volcanoes.

“You can help track wildfire ash and help scientists demystify fire weather,” Collins said. “Your photos of the size and shape of ash particles that fall around wildfires will play an important role in wildland fire research. Users submit time- and geo-tagged photographs of the ash with objects for scale in the photo.”

With this project funded by the National Science Foundation, the #Ashfallscience Twitter campaign will continue, and be amplified, during high-impact wildfires.

The next steps with these crowd-sourced data are to harvest images from Twitter and apply image processing tools to extract ash shapes and sizes, to aggregate data to form size and shape distributions, and mine NEXRAD radar data corresponding to the time and location of the #Ashfallscience images.

Click here to participate and submit data.

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