By Spencer Wilson

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– With Colorado facing some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in the state’s history in the last few years, firefighters across the state are gearing up for intense wildfires that could break out at any moment. In Eagle, just west of Vail, crews have a high-tech solution to get a feel for the real thing, without the stress of burning homes on the line: a Sim Table, an interactive map projected over a fine sand-like compound, made of walnuts.

Wildfire coordinator for Eagle Valley Wildland Program, Hugh Fairfield-Smith, said it’s a game changer for departments like his, and for neighbors in the communities they are trying to help protect.

“This is where we want to do treatment,” Fairfield-Smith said, pointing to a raised lump of walnut dust, with a projected valley spread across it. “This is where we have high risk. We will come to this table and start doing runs and we will see if a fire starts here, or if a fire starts here, or here, where those are going to be impacted and that can drive our mitigation planning and processes and we will take that to the public and seek approval.”

The table allows Fairfield-Smith to use a laser pointer to control the box projector. After selecting a fire tool and picking wind speed and direction, he’s able to start a simulated fire and watch how it will theatrically move along with the topography of the map, accounting for fuel density, temperature and firefighter intervention as well as fuel breaks. It’s intended to give people an understanding of how successful a firefight can be with the right preparation, or how destructive it can be without.

“A lot of people tend to think ‘This could never happen to me’ and there is a sense of emotion tied to it when you say ‘Well, there is your house right there, and now it is on fire,'” Fairfield-Smith added.

He said seeing it play out like it would in real life and having people see how fast a fire can move helps motivate them to take preparatory steps to mitigate their properties or have fire crews come out for an inspection on how to better defend their space.

(credit: CBS)

“We are not in the business of making people cut down their trees, it’s more about preparing those trees to take a fire front,” Fairfield-Smith said, laughing. “Resiliency is the name of the game here.”

Spencer Wilson