High-Tech Firefighting Saving Lives

Israel’s unique-in-the-world working system for predicting the behavior of forest fires is beginning to revolutionize how these potentially deadly incidents are handled — and save countless lives, trees and property at the same time.

The Matash Fire Forecasting System, first deployed in the summer of 2012, was born out of the tragedy of the Carmel Forest fire in December 2010 — the worst fire in Israeli history, claiming 44 lives, destroying five million trees in the Carmel Forest and damaging residences.

One of the most difficult and dangerous aspects of fighting any forest fire — an average 1,000 of them occur each year in Israel — is predicting how the blaze will spread. Often, decisions about sending equipment and personnel, or whether to evacuate residents of surrounding communities, are sheer guesswork.

The research department of Israel’s Ministry of Public Security took a closer look at European and American models for predicting the behavior of forest fires using Weather Research Forecasting (WRF). They then built a simulation of how such a system could have provided critical information to those battling the Carmel blaze.

Matash grew out of the success of that simulation, says Shai Amram, geographic systems information manager for the ministry’s research department. “This is the first operational WRF system in the world,” he says.

Matash works by crunching data concerning weather, topography and infrastructure as soon as firefighters report their exact location.

Using live feedback as well as sources such as Google Maps and Google Earth, the system provides a complete picture based on temperature, relative humidity, precipitation and wind direction and speed; as well as topographical conditions, location of flammable materials and the moisture level of vegetation on the scene.

The results are unprecedented in the history of firefighting.

“After we hear from the firefighters in the field, in 15 minutes we get predictions for one hour ahead,” says Amram. “After 30 minutes, we get six hours ahead.”

Matash quickly proved its capabilities in real time.

Last summer, there were two big fires near Yerushalayim — in Motza and Ma’aleh Hachamisha. With Matash, the fires were controlled before dire scenarios could develop.

In addition to predicting how the blaze will behave over the next few hours, 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 three-day weather forecasts.