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Technology Wildfire Summit Highlights California’s Progress

More than 100 people died in wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018, and more than 875,000 acres burned, but mountain-top cameras and high-resolution mapping systems are beginning to make a difference.

by Jim McKay / March 21, 2019

Fighting wildfires has traditionally been a response driven by experience, but as conditions change, as they have in California, that response becomes more difficult.

Climate change has made the wildfire seasons in California longer and more severe, and that makes response that is based on history and experience difficult. But that’s beginning to change because of technology as more than 700 stakeholders learned this week at the Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit held at California State University, Sacramento.

A recent drought in California and global warming, in part, has led to increasingly intense fires that in 2017 and 2018 killed more than 100 people in 2017 and 2018, burning more than 875,000 acres. The changing conditions have resulted in a fire season that is nearly year-round.

One of the many keys to fighting wildfires in the future as conditions continue to change, is to create wildfires’ potential indexes, traditionally developed at weather stations, via technology, such as a gridded forecast system, that not only provides relevant data but also changes the behavior of stakeholders.

That is happening for first responders as evidenced by the response to the Lilac Fire in San Diego in December 2017 as stakeholders used cameras and modeling and staged a collaborative battle against the fires. The effort was described as a ballet with myriad participants working collectively to fight the fires.

California’s wildfire experts have been working on developing models that predict the potential of wildfires. The models examine dead fuel (twigs, dead branches, etc.) and live fuel (live plants with roots) to get very high-resolution gridded fuel indexes that inform officials of wildfire potential.

San Diego County, after intense wildfires in 2003 and 2007, began developing more viable ways to assess and reduce fire risk and damage, including a weather monitoring network that encompasses mountain-top cameras and provide daily intelligence to first responders and others on fire risk.

Models are also being developed for understanding the adverse effects of the spread of wildfires and their behaviors and smoke dispersion forecasting. “It’s a brave new world of modeling,” said Dave Sapsis, wildland fire scientist with Cal Fire.

Steve Vanderburg, principal meteorologist for San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), said newer modeling tools helped get a jump on the West Fire in July 2018, which ended up burning 504 acres and destroying 56 structures. The focus had been on heat in days prior to the fire as forecasters warned of the dangers of hot temps.

But models at SDG&E suggested more than just heat, but a potentially dangerous fire event. “We activated the EOC the day before,” Vanderburg said.

The models include a lot of variables, including fuel components like grasses, dead fuel, live fuel, etc., and for officials, the key to making them work is to be able to communicate the information to the decision-makers revolving around fighting wildfires, summit panelists said.

One frustration that fire officials have as they work toward developing more efficient means for mitigating the increasingly dangerous conditions is trying to educate the public about wildfires. “It’s hard to capture the audience until a time of emergency,” said Tony Mecham, San Diego unit chief at Cal Fire. “We have to continue to articulate that we live in an area with this problem and we need everyone to do their part.”

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