UC Berkeley forms Fire Research Group to work on engineering solutions to wildfires

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UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering Tarek Zohdi has led the launch of the Fire Research Group, or FRG, to create and implement engineering solutions for uncontrolled wildfires.

The FRG is composed of researchers from UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, the Space Sciences Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The FRG aims to coordinate engineering, environmental and policy experts to support research into preventing and fighting uncontrolled wildfires.

Zohdi, who is also chief technology officer of the UC Berkeley Coleman Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership, added that the FRG was formalized two months ago, and the research in these areas was previously “sporadic” and never organized.

FRG researchers are currently working to improve real-time and predictive modeling technologies, post-disaster cleanup methods and the transport of equipment, according to the group’s website.

“The objective is to provide both long-term solutions and on-demand rapid technological solutions for firefighting in real time,” Zohdi said in an email.

According to Wayne Delker, executive director of the Fung Institute, the FRG allows individuals and groups in other disciplines to apply their expertise to fire management. Delker added that the Fung Institute brings to the table knowledge on how to influence organizations, government officials, corporations and students to work on projects.

“I think there’s tremendous potential,” Delker said. “We got together and shared short presentations on the work we were doing and … I saw a lot of great ideas that got me really excited coming out of the meeting.”

Tim Ball, a member of the FRG and president of the Fireball corporation based in Nevada, said he is working on improving mapping systems for airplanes. His system uses different colors to highlight where the fire is expanding, energy related to the fire that makes it easier to predict its spread, and “everything that is hot,” making it easier to clean up the fire’s aftermath.

FRG members are currently working on incorporating deep learning into existing mountaintop cameras, creating drones that could clean up the aftermath of a fire and developing roadside temperature and humidity detectors, among other projects, according to Ball.

Ball added that the temperature and humidity detectors would provide early warning of typical roadside fires including those caused by a car’s exhaust pipe.

According to Delker, Zohdi added a “student chapter” that would allow students to join the FRG and aid in creating and designing solutions. He added that, so far, individual members have already made plenty of contributions, but the group is too young to have done much.

“Typically, this type of research (was) considered ‘someone else’s problem,’ ” Zohdi said in an email. “However, in light of recent tragic events, it has now become everyone’s problem.”

Yao Huang is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.