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TMCNet:  Computers Put Melrose On the Map: Teens Take Challenge's Top Prize With Wildfire Model

[April 28, 2010]

Computers Put Melrose On the Map: Teens Take Challenge's Top Prize With Wildfire Model

LOS ALAMOS, Apr 28, 2010 (Albuquerque Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Melrose, population 736, is known mostly as a ranching and farming community.

But as of Tuesday, the tiny community near Clovis has a different claim to fame: Three of its teenagers captured the top prize at the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge in Los Alamos.

It's the first time a Melrose team has won first place at the competition, which pairs ambitious New Mexico students with highly advanced computing technology, allowing them to make models that mimic real-world environments.

On the Melrose team were Kyle Jacobs, 17, and brothers Richard Rush, 17, and Randall, 14. Each of them received $1,000.

The timing of this event was much better than earlier this year, when the teens had to turn down an invitation to present their work to legislators. The reason: It was calving season.

For all three teens, firefighting is a family calling and it formed the basis for their project. Jacobs' father is a fire chief, and the Rush brothers' grandfather heads a volunteer fire department.

"This kind of runs in our blood," Jacobs said.

The three teens used a computer model to study the control and spread of wildfires, looking at factors like topography, wind and fuel.

"We set up a model town on a hundred-by- hundred grid -- which is about the size of towns near us anyway," Richard Rush said.

One major finding was that fire barriers are significantly more useful in stopping a blaze's spread if they form a V-shape instead of a straight line, the boys said after Tuesday's award ceremony.

Students have been working on their projects for months and were honored Tuesday at an awards ceremony in Los Alamos.

"You guys are way, way smarter than I was at your age," quipped Isaac Richardson, the deputy director of Los Alamos National Labs and emcee of the event.

The inspiration for their project came from an even smaller New Mexico town: nearby Floyd, population 78.

The town was evacuated several years ago because of a wildfire.

"We wanted to see how that could be prevented," Jacobs said.
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The boys leaned on their firefighting relatives for realworld advice throughout the project, making sure their computer models were on the mark.

Jacobs said he would sometimes describe his findings to his father and see whether the model was behaving like a real fire.

The boys plan to build on their project next year, perhaps adding satellite data.

Second place went to a team of four students from Los Alamos High School, whose project modeled a branch of science called geostatistics that is used to find water and minerals underground. The team consisted of Gabriel Montoya, Rachel Robey, Orli Shlachter and Orion Staples, who each received $500.

Staples, 15, said the project has relevant implications because it could be used to locate underground oil reserves without having to drill.

Staples also said he felt lucky to use the powerful computers available to challenge contenders.

"You a lways have the resources you need there, and if they're not in your community you can find them elsewhere," he said.

A freshman, Staples said he definitely plans to return next year.

Third place went to another Los Alamos team, consisting of Peter Ahrens, Stephanie Djidjev, Vickie Wang and Mei Lui. Their project modeled flocking patterns, largely in birds, but also in elephants and humans. They each received $250.

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