Stanford University
Forest fire

Wildland fire hackathon addresses pressing issues

Students harnessed the power of big data analytics with the guidance of faculty and industry mentors to propose groundbreaking solutions to wildland fire issues in the third annual Big Earth Hackathon.

BY Derek Fong
ClockSeptember 23, 2020

In the third version of the Big Earth Hackathon, a cross-campus competition in which students use big data and the latest analytical tools to find solutions to environmental challenges, the topic would impact millions in 2020: wildland fires.

Faculty, industry experts, and representatives from CAL FIRE chose three focus areas for the Wildland Fire Challenge: equity and fairness, prediction and analysis, and mitigation.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing students to leave campus as winter quarter ended, the event’s organizers, energy resources engineering professor Margot Gerritsen and Derek Fong, a senior research engineer in Civil and Environmental Engineering, converted the in-person quarter-long event into a virtual experience, including workshops, a keynote address, and a companion course.


In a similar format to the previously successful Big Earth Water Hackathon, students were given eight weeks to think carefully about serious wildland fire problems and propose full-fledged solutions and prototypes. A companion course featured lectures by faculty and industry experts to introduce students to a breadth of issues surrounding wildland fires. Teams of up to four students collaborated and presented their work via a web-based poster session in June that included sample solutions, videos, and a detailed description of their projects.

In spite of the virtual format, 70 students from four Stanford schools – Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, the Graduate School of Business, and the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences – participated in the hackathon, leading to a number of groundbreaking projects. One of the hackathon judges, 37-year firefighter veteran and former CAL FIRE chief David Shew, wrote in an email:

“Overall, I see advances in vision and technology across the board. From early detection, defensible space, evacuations, damage assessment, community recovery, carbon output, and ballot measures, each team picked a topic that is desperately in need of improvements – and each of them present logical steps to push the boundaries of the status quo. It is quite clear that their research was thorough, and they listened to the problems. Their solutions were not restricted by the common attitudes found in the fire service, such as, ‘That’s not the way we do things around here.’ The innovation is astounding, and I am quite impressed with all of them – they all deserve kudos.”

One project that caught the attention of many judges, Project Firesafe, involved building a tool that used satellite imagery and social vulnerability data to assess wildfire risk in order to mobilize CAL FIRE support to the most vulnerable and at-risk populations. The four team members of Project Firesafe were awarded the newly minted Data Science Institute (DSI) Summer Continuation Prize for their work. DSI Director Chris Mentzel noted that the students had a “clear and deep understanding of the problem space, and more importantly the stakeholder perspective.” The prize included a stipend that encouraged the team to refine their project over the summer in collaboration with CAL FIRE, so the project can be handed off to teams supervised by CAL FIRE’s Chief Information Officer, Jay Song, who said he hopes to see it implemented as soon as possible. Song is also collaborating with another hackathon team that built a live interactive fire evacuation tool, with the goal of deploying it in the next few years.

Hackathon winners

Five prizes were awarded based on the compilation of judging scorecards from a panel of nine faculty and industry experts.

Grand Prize:

Damage Map: A Post-wildfire damaged building detector (Marios Galanis, Krishna Rao, and Yi-Lin Tsai)

Second Prize:

Project Firesafe (Joanna Klitzke, Will Ross, Hannah Sieber, and William Steenbergen)

Third Prize:

CA Carbon Emissions Under Forest Management Scenarios (Eli Kahan and Amy Kouch)

Microsoft AI for Earth Challenge:

Early Wildfire detection: false positive rejection (Vincent Esposito)

DSI Summer Continuation Prize:

Project Firesafe

The cross-campus Big Earth Hackathon initiative is sponsored by the Stanford School of Engineering, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), and the Stanford Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering. In addition to university support, the Hackathon was made possible by generous support from industry sponsor Tencent and a gift from David Wallerstein, chief exploration officer at Tencent.

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 650-497-9541

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