Technology: Marin wildfire study to use digital simulations to improve evacuations, US
A video game might not be the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to preparing for wildfire evacuations. But a new multiyear project in Marin County and Oakland led by the University of California in the US, plans to use these digital simulations to help residents and local agencies plan escapes from fires and find any defects in evacuation routes before a real conflagration occurs.
The three-year study will involve models of five areas of Marin ie Fairfax, Inverness, Mount Tamalpais, Novato and San Rafael that local fire agencies see as having some of the highest risks for evacuations. The researchers will simulate different types of wildfires to determine how they would affect communications, buildings, traffic flow, emergency service responses and community reactions.
“In our simulation, we model individual cars and how they move through the streets to evacuate to a safe place,” said Kenichi Soga, a UC professor leading the project. “If there is suddenly a wildfire in Marin County, how do people evacuate with the background traffic coming from San Francisco and other locations during the daytime?”
Louise Comfort, an affiliated researcher with UC Berkeley, said these models can help cities, utilities and emergency responders to discover potential traffic bottlenecks and gaps in communications. Different areas will face different challenges, from the warren of narrow streets winding through the densely vegetated hills on Mount Tamalpais to major thoroughfares such as Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
“It’s really trying to build a collective informed awareness in the community about this risk so people don’t get scared and worried and also have some idea of what to do and where to go,” Comfort said.
The intent is to prevent incidents similar to the Camp fire in 2018, when communication failures and issues contributed to thousands of residents in Paradise not receiving evacuation orders. The fire became the deadliest in California’s history, with 85 people killed.
These models are expected to become available as soon as March, with plans to expand them throughout the rest of the county.
The project will eventually create interactive simulations similar to a video game that will involve a digital version of a community amid a wildfire. These “serious games,” as they are referred to by the project leaders, are meant to expose players to different problem scenarios and allow them to work out how they would react.
Comfort said many people believe that these types of emergencies won’t happen to them. But when they do, many will become frightened and panic, not knowing how to react. The games are meant to provide some insight as to what these residents could face in such an emergency and allow them to have a plan when panic sets in.
“How do you teach a whole community to think alike?” Comfort said. “If you can create that situation once, people can do it again in a different situation and a similar way. It’s enhancing people’s ability to understand risk and translate that risk into action.”
The project is being funded by a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant and will perform similar work in Alameda County.
The project stems from a similar project conducted in Bolinas starting in 2019. Comfort said she was contacted by a Bolinas resident who had read an article about her project to improve emergency communications in Indonesia. After learning that Comfort had studied communications issues in the aftermath of the Camp fire, the resident contacted the Bolinas Fire Protection District, which invited Comfort to Bolinas.
“Some of the same problems that hampered the evacuation in Paradise are characteristic in Bolinas, one road in and one road out. Even possibly more severe,” Comfort said.
Using a $60 000 grant, Comfort and other researchers worked with the fire district to model out the community to find traffic bottlenecks and communication issues. After the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority was created and learned about the work in Bolinas, members reached out to the research group to see if the project could be expanded to new areas.
Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber said that with the wildfire authority looking to complete an assessment of evacuation routes, the project will provide planners insight into how people will react in the event of a major fire and what projects to prioritise with available funding.
“What we can’t calculate is how the public is going to respond,” Weber said. “How do we start to take that human element and predict that? That’s where the study has a lot of value in starting to engage with the public under real-world circumstances, whether it be a video game or something like that and then being able to make sure we adjust our systems to predict that.”
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