It’s a giant walled-in table of sand—a sandbox by any other name—and it’s helping predict where the deadly Arizona Wallow Fire could go next.
(More on TIME.com: Top 10 Devastating Wildfires)
That fire, currently raging through Arizona’s eastern mountains, continues to burn out of control as it races towards New Mexico—it’s already blackened over 600 square miles of Arizona timberland and forced nearly 6,000 evacuations.
Enter SimTable, a setup that uses a projector, digital technology and a table covered in playground-variety sand to create elaborate topographical representations of the Arizona Wallow Fire (named for the Bear Wallow Wilderness area where the fire started). It’s the work of a Santa Fe-based research company that wanted to craft an interactive 3D fire simulator. Using the table, researchers can simulate a fire’s direction and burn patterns as well as weather, traffic, evacuation routes and firefighting procedures.
Here’s how it works: A computer pipes satellite imagery through a projector onto a tabletop sandbox (no really, an actual sandbox). Color-coded areas show where to move the sand (with your hands) to quickly create hills, mountain peaks and valleys. By the time you’re finished, you have a box with astonishingly accurate contours, overlaid by a topographical digital image that makes the whole thing look almost holographic.
And here’s the crazy-cool part: You start the simulated fires with actual fire—pull a lighter out of your pocket and “ignite” the sand to get the computer simulation going. The computer then simulates how the fire will burn, assisting fire crews, helping authorities coordinate evacuation plans, showing traffic backups, and factoring in road closures.
How’s it helping with the Wallow Fire? According to New Mexico-based KOB-TV, SimTable’s identified low and high density fuel types (trees, grass) illustrating where the fire may be containable, as well as projected the fire’s path toward a major power line in New Mexico—a line running from the Palo Verde nuclear power plant that feeds much of southern New Mexico and eastern Texas.