Israel builds world’s first fire forecasting system

Matash crunches a variety of data to predict how a forest fire will spread and help authorities decide how best to fight it.

Hot, dry summers put forests at great risk of fire. Since January of this year alone, hundreds of wildfires destroyed large swaths of Australia, while Colorado’s Black Forest experienced the worst blaze in state history.

The devastation might not be as vast in the future, if firefighters adopt Israel’s unique Matash Fire Forecasting System, developed by the research department of the Ministry of Public Security in reaction to the record-breaking Carmel Forest fire of 2010.

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Research Director Besora Regev and geographic systems information manager Shai Amram demonstrated Matash to interested delegates from countries including Spain, Bulgaria, Italy, Croatia, South Korea and Kenya at a homeland security conference in Tel Aviv last fall. The system operates in English, so it could be used anywhere.

Strategizing how to fight forest fires is largely luck and guesswork because so many unpredictable or unknown factors affect how it spreads, from wind conditions to the moisture level of the vegetation.

The Israelis built Matash on European and American theoretical models for predicting the behavior of forest fires using weather research forecasting (WRF). They first made a simulation to see how such a system could have helped in managing the Carmel blaze, and were so impressed with its potential that they decided to take it live.

“This is the first operational WRF system in the world,” Amram tells ISRAEL21c.

As soon as firefighters report their exact location, personnel at the Israeli Fire and Rescue control center in Rishon LeZion put Matash to work crunching data concerning weather, topography and infrastructure from live feedback as well as sources such as Google Maps and Google Earth.

The prediction system quickly helps decision-makers to minimize damage and loss of life. Photo courtesy of KKL-JNF
The prediction system quickly helps decision-makers to minimize damage and loss of life. Photo courtesy of KKL-JNF

“In 15 minutes we get predictions for one hour ahead,” says Amram. “After 30 minutes, we get six hours ahead.”

No more worst-case scenario

Rolled out in the summer of 2012, Matash already proved its capabilities.

“Last summer, there were two big fires near Jerusalem, in Motza and Ma’aleh Hachamisha,” Regev tells ISRAEL21c. “The system was very helpful for predicting a few hours ahead for the worst-case scenario that we do not want to get to.”

The need for Matash is great. On average, 1,000 forest fires occur each year in Israel. Many lives depend on decisions about deploying equipment and personnel, and whether to evacuate residents who live in the vicinity.

Matash and other advanced technologies resulted from the Israeli government’s decision to create a National Fire Authority (NFA) following the Carmel disaster. NFA unified myriad municipality-based fire services into a single national force under the auspices of the Public Security Ministry.

Matash is available to every firefighting, police and rescue agency in Israel, including Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which administer the country’s 400,560 acres of forest.

Matash presents decision-makers with a two-dimensional map; 3D imaging of fire temperature, fire line advancement and height of flames; maps of potential additional fires and high-risk areas; and weather forecasts for the next three days at a 1.3-kilometer resolution. The system has an accuracy level of within 50 meters and updates itself every six hours.

When there are no fires, the Matash system can be used in simulation mode to help officials prevent fires and prepare action plans in case they occur.

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.
  • FireGuy

    The first fully integrated fire spread prediction systems were developed by the Canadians and the Americans in the 1990’s

    The Canadian system Prometheus is based on the spread equations of Gwynfor Richards at Brandon University. The driving forces behind the system were Cordy Tymstra and Rob Bryce. It was a large project. Link is http://www.firegrowthmodel.ca/

    The American system FARSITE is based on similar ideas and the driving force behind this system is Mark Finney of the US Forestry Service. Finney has been featured in the media a number of times and is basically the father of the US system. Link http://www.firemodels.org/index.php/national-systems/farsite and http://www.farsite.org/

    Both of these systems are high end, professionaly built , free downloads and in operational use. The fact that other US government agencies were involved in the Isreali syatem when the US already has a World class sytem is remarkable.

    A further link is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildfire_modeling

  • arsailman1

    How come the Israelis could do this in a couple of years and the U.S. wouldn’t be done trying to put together a committee in the same time???