The Data Scientist Revolutionizing Fire Data Science

A Profile of CWI Board Member Ilkay Altintas

Written by: Elaina Zachos

On October 26, 2003, research scientist Ilkay Altintas was meeting with ecologists in Santa Barbara for a project. Around 10 a.m., she received a call from her partner warning of wildfires in the area.

“It was my first experience of California fires,” Altintas recalled in a talk in 2019. “I didn’t know until I got out [of the meeting that] my train to go back home was canceled. I got in a colleague’s pick-up truck to go back to San Diego … [on the road,] one side was sunset, one side was fire.”

That was the Cedar Fire, which killed 15 people and burned more than 280,000 acres in San Diego County.

The event inspired Altintas to center her data science and computing career on wildfire research. Today, she is not only a founding board member at CWI, she’s also the chief data science officer of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a founding fellow of the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, and the founding director of the Center of Excellence at Workflows for Data Science. Altintas is also the founding director of the WIFIRE Lab, which leverages the only integrated cyberinfrastructure that can be used in wildfire modeling.

“What if we can bring real-time data together with fast-running fire models so the moment the fire happens, we know where that fire is and where it’s going to be in the next couple of hours?” Altintas said in an interview with the author last month. “That’s the question that made me start in this domain more than 10 years ago.”

Today’s Blaze

Since the Cedar Fire, the motivations for Altintas work have evolved. Fire models have improved in the last two decades, so she’s gotten more specific with her research questions around shaping computational data and artificial intelligence to be more available and effective in the wildfire space.

“What if we give anyone interested a solid digital infrastructure for data-computing AI and new science models from many different perspectives? Can we solve problems faster and develop solutions at a scale we weren’t able to before?” Altintas asks. “We need to work with partnerships and cross-sector collaboration to enable some of those what-ifs.”

As a founding Board member of CWI, Altintas has been involved with the organization from its inception. She was a part of early discussions with colleagues about creating an entity specifically to accelerate research and policy in wildland fire. A main concern, she said, was how to enable collaboration between agencies to reach solutions faster than before. 

“Next-generation science needs data at the same scale as decision making,” Altintas said. Although changing policy requires cutting-edge science, Altintas points out that solutions must be easier to understand, faster to access, and more standardized and trustworthy than in the past.

Altintas is the project lead for CWI’s Wildfire & Climate Resilience Data Hub. The technical project creates a digital infrastructure to connect the wildfire research community to crucial information and help standardize processes so people can access the right data at the right time.

“Long term, we can imagine a world where we can expand our data foundations or the solutions we have by integrating data from many sources and create standards for bringing data together in a lifecycle that can enable resilience and sustainability,” Altintas said.

Informed by on-the-ground conditions and fire models, the Hub helps create an integrated view of wildfire data resources to drive decisions faster, more accurately, and more transparently than ever before.

“It’s very important for me to see the relevance of what I’m doing at the societal scale, as a scientist and technologist,” Altintas said. “These types of techniques can help us to monitor the fast changes in our environment to track trends a lot faster.”

Ilkay Altintas explains the functionality of UC San Diego's BurnPro3D AI technology.

Courtesy of UC San Diego Video Promo

“Next-generation science needs data at the same scale as decision making,” Altintas said. Although changing policy requires cutting-edge science, Altintas points out that solutions must be easier to understand, faster to access, and more standardized and trustworthy than in the past.

Fire Forward

As a researcher, Altintas recognizes that fire is not a singular natural hazard. It couples with other climate issues like drought, post-fire flooding, and debris flows—therefore, fire and its effects cannot be studied in a vacuum.

“We still live in a world where we can attack the problem and mitigate the negative effects of wildfire. But we need to come together and collaborate in a way that brings our perspectives together,” Altintas said.

She adds that more data and computing, as well as bringing communities together, would be helpful in further accelerating solutions in wildfire research. Seeing more collaboration and more platforms for communicating wildfire data makes Altintas hopeful, she said.

“We’ll be able to actually confront the wildfire crisis if we augment our thinking with next-generation science and technology,” Altintas said. “It’s not the type of problem that one person or one type of entity can solve alone.”

Written by Elaina Zachos

Elaina is a storyteller and lead writer for Overstories, a grant consultancy serving environmental nonprofits. She has worked as a disaster field specialist in wildfire mitigation, hurricane recovery, and tornado and flood response across the country. She is also a contributor to National Geographic.