Local Professors Compare Wildfires, Epidemics

Local Mathematicians Have New Model Ready

On Wednesday morning, the world was focused on the swine flu, where it’s been -- where it will strike next.

That same day, two local math professors learned their research grant application was received at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. to help provide a better way to track this exact type of worldwide health threat.

"But like cutting-edge research you don't know what's going to become of it," said Dr. Jan Mandel, one of the co-principal investigators at University of Colorado at Denver.

Working in the same building and on the same floor at 14th Street and Larimer Street, Mandel and Dr. Loren Cobb had no idea their separate forays into wildfire and pandemic flu models would look and function similarly, based on combustion waves.

"And the combustion wave actually is very much like epidemics," Mandel said. "It is the same model, just the numbers are different. It's the adjusting where the mathematics is."

"It doesn't take but five seconds to see the similarity. Those equations are almost identical," Cobb said.

They realized they should work together when they saw the computer models for their respective projects.

Mandel’s used the Big Elk fire of July 2002 as the model to demonstrate how a fire spreads out, with the embers carried by the wind, igniting the brush, advancing the flames.

“A glowing ember for a fire is like an infected person who is infectious but not quite showing symptoms," Cobb said.

He used a theoretical cholera outbreak in Sweden.

Both models are based on extremely complicated mathematical equations.

They will compete for $600,000 in federal stimulus money.

It’s part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and an NIH Challenge Grant in Health and Science Research, a pool of $200 million to be disbursed over the next two years

Mandel and Cobb both think the current epidemic models are outdated and inflexible.

"The goal of our project is to make them much more like a weather map," Cobb said.

Their model is two-dimensional, allowing researchers to pinpoint individuals infected with cholera or avian flu.

In fact, Cobb has been working towards a possible bird flu pandemic.

"(It’s) similar to swine flu but probably much more lethal. (It’s) far more dangerous. Many more people will die. And I'm hoping that our model will be ready before the avian influenza hits," Cobb said. "We were helped, I have to say, by a little serendipity. This swine flu epidemic has raised everybody's awareness of the problems with predicting and forecasting influenza."

Because it’s unclear what the mortality or death rate for swine flu is, their model does not predict or forecast this worldwide health alert.