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NIST Computer Program Spurs Decision to Set Leaking Cargo Ship Afire

 A computer program developed by fire scientists at a federal laboratory played a key role in the decision last night to ignite a huge explosion on a cargo ship off the coast of Oregon.

The computer program was developed at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Critical calculations provided by the program helped the emergency response team to decide whether setting off a huge conflagration would do more harm than good.

Emergency officials had to balance two dramatic threats. Doing nothing might allow a disastrous oil spill that would wreak havoc on the pristine estuaries along Oregon’s spectacular coast. Yet setting a fire could produce a billowing plume of toxic smoke that would drift inland and pose a health hazard to residents on shore.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard solved the dilemma, in part, by requesting data from a computer program developed by NIST fire scientists specifically for situations that involve intentional burning of oil to avert a greater disaster. Calculations from the program, called ALOFT, were done at NIST’s facility in Gaithersburg, Md., and faxed to the on-scene response team. The data gave authorities confidence about the limited spread of the downwind smoke plume.

The Coos Bay fire marked the first time that ALOFT has been used in the lower 48 states to make an intentional oil burning decision. NIST unveiled the computer program last year.

ALOFT predicts the downwind distribution of smoke particulate and combustion products from large outdoor fires. The program also estimates the chemical concentrations in segments from ground level (or sea level) to the top of the plume.

The ALOFT program can run on a Windows-based personal computer. It makes projections based on variables such as wind speed and variability, atmospheric temperature, number of fires and heat release rate. ALOFT displays results as downwind, crosswind and vertical smoke concentration contours.

NIST developed ALOFT to aid in the planning process for intentional burning of crude oil spills on water. However, it can also predict the smoke plume trajectory from other large outdoor fires, such as that caused by a burning building.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.

Released February 12, 1999, Updated November 27, 2017