The Institute for Water Resources’(IWR) Hydrologic Engineering Center (HEC), located in Davis, CA, takes home the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Innovation of the Year Award for adding Post-Wildfire Modeling capabilities to its software. These software capabilities provide prediction tools that engineers can use to anticipate a unique type of flooding that can follow a combination of fire and floods.
The software development was led by a USACE project delivery team with collaboration between HEC, the Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, and USACE District Engineers, who incorporated the post-wildfire modeling capabilities into HEC's hydrology and hydraulic software. What resulted was award-winning predictive capabilities that advances the nation’s fight against floods, and especially post-wildfire flooding.
Hydrologic Engineering Center Director, Chris Dunn, highlighted the significance of the achievement. “The team’s efforts culminated in truly groundbreaking capabilities which are of great value to the nation and to the engineers who use the tools. The engineers analyze watersheds where wildfires have occurred, and they attempt to predict what could happen in watersheds where wildfires may occur in the future. The incorporation of these capabilities into HEC-HMS and HEC-RAS will better help engineers, emergency planners, and the public understand their risks and appropriately prepare. A big part of our jobs is to understand and help others understand their risks. These capabilities have helped us to do so in a big way.”
According to Stanford Gibson, HEC’s Sediment Transport Specialist, the modeling tool is increasingly relevant due to an uptick in wildfires in the western United States and the destructive or deadly nature of wildfires, and the potential for mud and debris flows to follow. “Wildfires are kind of a big deal these days. But after the wildfire, the danger isn’t over. The fire changes the landscape, so subsequent rain can cause sudden mud and debris flows. We added analysis tools to our software – which is already industry standard for flood risk – to forecast the impact of these events and plan emergency management actions,” Gibson said.
Specifically, the models are now superpowered by a library of new equations to handle the unique physics of these events which improves the agency’s ability to more anticipate the likelihood and magnitude of a post-fire event, where it will flow and how deep the flooding will be. “This is crucial for emergency assessments and mitigation measures,” said Dr. Jay Pak, HEC Hydraulic Engineer, “as it allows USACE to more accurately predict post-fire flood risk and respond accordingly. Additionally, the establishment of a long-term modeling framework enables USACE to continuously simulate post-fire flooding, debris flow risk, and ecology recovery in downstream ecosystems and communities over a 10-year period,” Pak said.
These capabilities are critical for USACE as the agency has a role in responding to post-wildfire hazards. “As the nation’s premier flood risk agency, our partners turn to us when they face any kind of flood risk, whether the water is blue (traditional flood water) or brown (mud and debris-filled flood waters). They expect us to have the capabilities to forecast their flood risk and evaluate mitigation alternatives, no matter the scenario, which requires increased analysis since the physics of mud and debris flows is more complicated than water. This effort got the tools our Corps districts need into their hands to meet these expectations for post-wildfire hazards,” Gibson said.
In addition to increasing predictive capabilities and response efforts, the software also increases opportunities for collaboration among key partners, thanks in part to the research and development touchpoints occurring between state, local and federal agencies utilizing the software. Pak emphasized that such cross-agency collaboration can lead to more effective and efficient emergency response and risk mitigation measures, such as was recognized in the innovation award. “The team behind this innovation can be proud of the fact that we developed new capabilities in the HEC-Hydrologic Modeling System (HEC-HMS) and the HEC-River Analysis System (HEC-RAS) from scratch through research, software development, technical transfer, and applications. This is a significant achievement that required a lot of hard work, collaboration, and expertise from multiple organizations and individuals. The fact that we were able to develop these capabilities from scratch demonstrates our innovation, creativity, and dedication to improving emergency assessments and mitigation measures for post-fire hydrological phenomenon. This award is a recognition of our hard work and a testament to the impact that our innovation can have on protecting communities and infrastructure from the effects of post-fire flooding,” said Pak. He also added, “Personally, this was a dream come true for me as it provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to utilize my previous Ph.D. research in developing new capabilities for post-wildfire hydrology and debris flow.”
Gibson also reflected upon the team’s achievement, acknowledging the truly innovative approach required. “The hydraulics include some pretty “crunchy” math. Mud and debris flows aren’t water and require new physics and theory. It delves into the world of rheology (which partly studies the flow of complex liquids) and non-Newtonian physics (which studies fluids that depart from Newton’s viscosity assumptions), both of which are fun for someone like me,” said Gibson. “But by getting it into HEC-RAS, the flood risk model that our agency (and ~100,000 people around the world) already use, we got these capabilities into the field, and they were used in planning and emergency management studies in four different USACE districts within a year of release. We trained more than 40 people on these tools at the first class in late April, which means that within a couple years of their release they are just part of the Corp’s wildfire response,” Gibson added.
Gibson also addressed key players in the achievement saying, “We collaborated with USACE Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) to develop the algorithms and library…particularly Dr. Ian Floyd, ERDC research physical scientist, and Dr. Alex Sánchez, senior hydraulic engineer at HEC did a lot of the HEC-RAS development.
The PDT is also releasing web videos on the theory and practice behind these new methods. The post-wildfire team has developed seven videos on these topics that have been viewed over 7,500 times since their release. The team has embedded these videos directly into the online user help features, making them directly accessible from the software.
Visit https://www.hec.usace.army.mil/confluence/rasdocs/rasmuddebris to learn more about this innovative capability or https://www.hec.usace.army.mil/software/hec-hms/training.aspx to access a training material link which is a portal to the HMS capabilities and videos.
The primary goal of the Hydrologic Engineering Center (CEIWR-HEC) is to support the nation in its water resources management responsibilities by increasing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) technical capability in hydrologic engineering and water resources planning and management. One way CEIWR-HEC accomplishes this goal is by bringing state-of-the-art research and development into state-of-the-practice, which advances hydrologic engineering and water resources planning.
Imagine if you were told that a new software platform could save you 40% of the time you currently spend on administrative tasks at work. What could you do with that extra time? That is the exciting question that many within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might be asking themselves when a new construction management platform is released to the enterprise.
The Technology Modernization Office, or TMO, a branch of the Construction Management Innovation Office within USACE Headquarters, is working hard to develop and deliver a new construction management platform. The new platform will be designed to foster a more efficient, collaborative working environment by streamlining and modernizing current construction management processes.
The new construction management platform will replace the Resident Management System, or RMS for short, which is the platform currently being used by USACE and its contractor partners. RMS is the program by which USACE and contractor partners communicate with each other throughout the course of a construction project.
By replacing RMS with a new, more modern platform, the TMO hopes to streamline how USACE projects are completed by improving collaboration among the entire project team including external partners. This would, in turn, improve workflow efficiency related to the entire construction management process.
“To me, one of the really cool parts of this project is that it will not just be innovating the things we’re delivering, but the process by which we deliver projects,” said Alexandra Henderson Connors, construction management technology modernization manager, who works out of the Kansas City District in Kansas City, Missouri.
A relatively new branch of the Construction Management Innovation Office, the TMO is still in the early stages of design and development for the new construction management platform. The replacement platform has a projected release date to the USACE enterprise of 2025. The work being done by the TMO located in the Kansas City District will have long-lasting benefits for the entire enterprise and our mission.
But replacing RMS is just the tip of the iceberg for the TMO. The team will continue to manage projects and oversee initiatives focused on increasing construction quality and efficiency.
“The platform is really the ground level that allows us to bring in all of these other innovations … it’s that first step to be able to continue to innovate … and then we can start to do all of these other really cool things,” said Henderson Connors.
Long-term, the Construction Management Innovation Office and the TMO have a plan to continue to innovate by focusing on construction management technology, research and development. Innovating now and into the future, USACE aims to stay competitive with the private construction industry.
The TMO hopes its innovations will strengthen USACE partnerships across the nation and around the world, maintaining its reputation as a trusted federal partner. With a focus on the intersection of people, process and technology, modernizing the process by which USACE completes its mission will serve to strengthen current partnerships and build new, lasting partnerships in the future.
“These systems will showcase USACE’s commitment to keeping up with technology that works for project delivery staff, not against them,” said Darrick Godfrey, USACE Headquarters senior construction engineer.
While the prospect of strengthening and establishing new external partnerships is an added bonus, USACE leadership acknowledges that improving construction management processes is critical to the mission and hopes its dedication to industry excellence will attract new talent and retain existing talent.
“If we are open to new ideas, exploring ways of finding new processes and technology that will enhance tried and true USACE processes … there is no limit to where our digital transformation journey will lead,” said Godfrey, “and we might just have fun doing it.”
For more information about a career with the TMO or USACE, visit Careers and Employment with the Kansas City District (army.mil).