SAN DIEGO — With the calculating power of about two million iPhones combined, Comet is helping firefighters save lives. 

“Just to imagine what kind of computations are taking place here. It’s mind-blowing,” Ilkay Altintas, Chief Data Science Officer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, told Spectrum News 1. 

Comet is a $27 million supercomputer at the University of California, San Diego. It’s helping Altintas and her colleague Larry Smarr run a program called WiFire, which predicts where out of control fires will spread next.

As wildfires become more intense, fire departments in SoCal are increasingly looking to big data to help them figure out what they’re up against.

“With these supercomputers, we can solve a problem in a few minutes that would take you a year to run on your laptop,” Smarr said. 

WiFire is able to pull together data from government agencies, on-the-ground sensors and even NASA satellites, all within minutes, and it’s quickly becoming one of the most powerful weapons in firefighting. 

“You can see for instance, how hot the weather is, what the humidity is, and how the winds are doing, which direction they are blowing,” Altintas said. 

That information is invaluable to Carlos Calvillo, Assistant Chief at the Los Angeles Fire Department.

When he’s dispatched, one of the first things he does is run the WiFire program. Within minutes the supercomputer in San Diego  shows him how the fire could develop in half hour increments, all during the initial phase of the fire. WiFire can even access cameras in different parts of SoCal.

“I’m literally looking at the view live right now from the camera,” said Calvillo.

That information is then sent to firefighters on the ground. They simply open up the file on one of their devices and see it displayed on a huge monitor in the back of their rig.

This is the first year every single chief officer at the LAFD has been trained to operate it. 

“We’ve just taken it to a whole new level of capability,” Calvillo said.