Fire Math


There is a lot of smoke around here. We’re back in California, and between the fires near Santa Barbara and those in Big Sur, the air is hazy and a lot of people are worried. Apparently the Gap Fires are burning 50-year old brush, which I’m sure is part of Mother Nature’s design and well and good for the native environment, but not so great for the houses and people that live there. It’s scary stuff.

So with fire on our minds right now, here are a few sites that look at the mathematics of fires and firefighting.

For the younger crowd, there a quiz on Wild Fire Math from FEMA for Kids. (More general fire sites for kids are the FEMA Wildfire section and the US Fire Administration for Kids.) The quiz has four multiple-choice questions, such as:

A wildfire is burning many acres of forest. On Tuesday, the wildfire burned 1,200 acres and on Wednesday another 1,593 acres burned. How many acres have burned so far?

On a more advanced but grimmer note, Texas Instruments has a (free) high-school level activity that uses wildfire deaths between 1997 and 2002 to create a scatterplot and compare two different methods of linear regression.

Moving from the math of fires to the math of firefighting, there are practice questions for the Fire Fighter Basic Mathematics Exam, with questions like the following:

If gas costs $3.29 per gallon and you purchase 6.5 gallons, how much money will you spend?

(Bonus: can you figure out when this question was written from the cost of gas? I’m thinking sometime between 2001 and 2007.) You can also find a brief summary of the kinds of math needed here.

The math described in the paragraph above is relatively straightforward (primarily elementary school or maybe middle school math), but this extensive site on FireFighter Math actually has quite complicated stuff on it. It moves from the Perimeter of Burn in Section 1.1 to the volume of water in a hose in Section 3.2 to reading graphs [nomograms] regarding windspeed in Section 9.2. A lot of the material is at least high school level math.

Finally, last November, Julie J. Rehmeyer wrote in “Math on Fire” about the challenges and progress that mathematicians and scientists were making in creating accurate models for determining the progress of a wildfire.


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