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Modeling tools at CSU help determine wildfire prevention methods

Collegian | Trin Bonner

Wildfires are a prevalent threat to those in the Western United States. With the Cameron Peak Fire ravaging the Front Range and the Marshall Fire hitting suburban communities, Colorado has seen the impact firsthand.

Deciding how to protect communities, who is most at risk and what resources need to be protected are some of the best preventative measures a community can take. 


Statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center showed that the burn rate of acres has almost doubled within the last 20 years when compared to 40 years earlier. Factors including drought, population growth, climate change and past practices of fire suppression have all contributed to this increase. 

It’s not a simple process; it is emotional and requires models that guide the conversation with facts as well as taking into account communities’ values, said Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. There are several models that have been developed at Colorado State University to determine a myriad of concerns with fire.

CSU civil and environmental engineering professor Hussam Mahmoud and postdoctoral fellow Akshat Chulahwat have been developing a model to measure the vulnerability of communities to wildfire, according to a CSU SOURCE article. 

This is the first model to predict how wildfires will move through a community. The model accesses points of interest and their likeliness to commute fire. The data could be looking at anything from cars to buildings and accessing the environment in which wildfires could progress. 

“It’s obvious that once you ignite the house or tree, then it could ignite the one next to it, and this could ignite the one next to it and so on,” Mahmoud said. “So there’s that connectivity that had to be presented.” 

Through graph theory and extensive data, Mahmoud and his team have been able to develop a highly accurate model.

When applied to the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado, the model exhibited 74% accuracy when predicting the buildings that would be burned and path of fire, Mahmoud said. When applied to the 2020 Glass Fire in Northern California, it showed 63.15% accuracy, according to the data published in Scientific Reports.

Mahmoud’s model may also make a difference in insurance policy. It has the potential to determine the risk of insuring a home, which has been a major factor in home insurance changes in high-risk states like California. 

“Everything is connected,” Mahmoud said. “So with this model, we can protect communities, not just individual buildings.”


Models can be used to protect communities in multiple ways. Cheng and his team use models to help communities determine which resources to protect and how to protect them. 

“What we’ve tried to do is work with local forest managers to make sure that model data is accurate,” Cheng said. 

Cheng and the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute use data from the communities to determine how budgets can be spent to protect those resources. A major concern for most areas is water.

“We call them highly valued resources,” Cheng said. “One community may really value water. Water supplies are essential for community systems. Once those get impacted by fires, then you have a damaged or destroyed system. We want to map where those resources are and how likely those areas are to be subjected to fire.” 

Models like these put CSU and the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at the forefront of fire management. They have applications in development, insurance, conservation and protecting communities.

Reach Ivy Secrest at or on Twitter @IvySecrest.

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About the Contributors
Ivy Secrest
Ivy Secrest, Content Managing Editor
Ivy Secrest is The Collegian's content managing editor. Secrest uses she/her/hers pronouns and has worked for The Collegian previously as a reporter and as life and culture director for the 2022-23 academic year. As a senior in the journalism and media communications department, Secrest enjoys reporting on environmental and social issues with a special interest in science communication. She is president of the Science Communication Club and is pursuing a minor in global environmental sustainability with hopes of utilizing her education in her career. Growing up in Denver, Secrest developed a deep love for the outdoors. She could happily spend the rest of her life hiking alpine environments, jumping into lakes, taking photos of the wildflowers and listening to folk music. She's passionate about skiing, hiking, dancing, painting, writing poetry and camping. Secrest's passions spurred her career in journalism, helping her reach out to her community and get involved in topics that students and residents of Fort Collins truly care about. She has taken every opportunity to connect with the communities she has reported in and has written for several of the desks at The Collegian, including news, life and culture, cannabis, arts and entertainment and opinion. She uses her connections with the community to inform both managerial and editorial decisions with hopes that the publication serves as a true reflection of the student body's interests and concerns. Secrest is an advocate of community-centered journalism, believing in the importance of fostering meaningful dialogue between press and community.
Trin Bonner
Trin Bonner, Illustration Director
Trin Bonner is the illustration director for The Collegian newspaper. This will be her third year in this position, and she loves being a part of the creative and amazing design team at The Collegian. As the illustration director, Bonner provides creative insight and ideas that bring the newspaper the best graphics and illustrations possible. She loves working with artists to develop fun and unique illustrations every week for the readers. Bonner is a fourth-year at Colorado State University studying electronic arts. She loves illustrating and comic making and has recently found enjoyment in experimental video, pottery and graphic design. Outside of illustration and electronic art, Bonner spends her free time crocheting and bead making. She is usually working on a blanket or making jewelry when she is not drawing, illustrating or brainstorming.

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