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Wildfires Have Changed. The Technology to Fight Them Hasn't — Yet

The technology Cal Fire is most excited about: Over the next five years it will get a dozen new Black Hawk helicopters — designed in the 1970s — to replace its fleet of Hueys, which previously served in the Vietnam War.

TNS/Marcus Yam
(TNS) — California prides itself on technological innovation. But as brutal fires scorch the state, its arsenal remains traditional: axes and fire trucks on the ground, and planes and helicopters dropping water and foam.

“Our basic foundation is the tried and true,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “There’s no real shiny object out there that would work for us right now.”

The technology Cal Fire is most excited about: Over the next five years it will get a dozen new Black Hawk helicopters — designed in the 1970s — to replace its fleet of Hueys, which previously served in the Vietnam War.

It’s not that firefighters are Luddites. But in life-and-death situations, they can’t afford to rely on solutions that haven’t been thoroughly field-tested. And, of course, there are major budget constraints as money gets consumed by the day-to-day battles.

“We don’t want to introduce unintended consequences,” said Ralph Gonzales, fire and aviation portfolio manager at the U.S. Forest Service’s Technology and Development Program in San Dimas (Los Angeles County).

The Forest Service, with almost 20,000 full-time and seasonal workers dedicated to firefighting nationwide, spends $3.4 billion a year — 57 percent of its budget — on battling blazes, both in the field and from labs and offices. It has 80 people working on research and development, plus new technologies.

An example is using longer handles for the Pulaski, a hand tool for clearing vegetation to construct firebreaks that combines a fire ax and adze (or hoe), in use for more than a century.

“The Pulaski has been around a long time — it’s not sexy, but it’s a tool firefighters use all the time,” Gonzales said. “We did an ergonomic study and field testing of whether longer handles would help with the fatigue and back issues that firefighters have.”

Firefighters from 1955 would readily recognize the tools and techniques being used to battle California’s raging infernos — but they might not recognize the increasingly intense fires. That’s a problem, experts say.

“We’re using decades-old tools and strategies to fight fires that are a lot different than they were 30 or 40 years ago,” said Edward Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfires Will Shape Our Future.

“We’ve got a new dynamic in the landscape,” he said. “We’ve got heat drying up the forests, extending droughts, providing more fuel for ignition. The heat drives winds like the Santa Anas even harder than in the past.”

He’d like to see major investments in technology, but noted that agencies like the Forest Service “are so frenzied dealing with so many fires burning almost year-round now that it has to be up to Congress to pull together resources for this.”

Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., are spearheading congressional efforts to allocate more money to modernize firefighting technology.

Solutions are being developed to help with finding and dousing flames, notifying residents about evacuations, pinpointing air quality issues and improving protective gear for firefighters. Some examples:

Visualizations: “Eyes in the sky” — planes, drones, satellites — can help pinpoint wildfires in their early stages, provide comprehensive overviews of ones currently raging and track where containment is and isn’t working. Computer models can crunch that data, along with weather and wind patterns, to predict where and when fires will spread.

FUEGO (Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit), a joint project of UC Berkeley researchers and Reno company Fireball, is one approach.

“Our detectors gather images, spatial data, results from simulations, local weather and turn it into intelligence that’s actionable,” said Carl Pennypacker, an astrophysicist at the Lawrence National Berkeley Laboratory.

Fireball CEO Tim Ball, who has a doctorate from Stanford and spent about a decade as a firefighter, said FUEGO delivers big-picture views in near-real time and then turns them into lines and points on a map, “symbology that can be quickly transmitted and communicated.”

He’s seeking funding for the system, which would use a combination of infrared-camera-equipped planes and sentinel drones that fly at about 60,000 feet — above commercial airspace so they won’t interfere with firefighting planes.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is working to use satellites to supplement its existing imaging. Currently, the agency takes aerial infrared images at night — providing a good snapshot of the fire first thing in the morning — but not throughout the day.

“We’d like to increase capacity to have a persistent stare on fires and how they are behaving,” said Lisa Elenz, assistant director of capabilities, development and integration for the Forest Service’s fire and aviation management division. The best route: partnerships with the military or private contractors with satellites.

Information technology is also key. “We’re trying to expand our ability to access information off aircraft, download it while they’re still in the air, store it and make it searchable for analysis and documentation,” Elenz said. “We want to improve situational awareness so we have better information for line officers, decision makers and crews on the ground.”

A new app called Collector allows firefighters in the field to capture information via photos, geographic information system data and text on factors such as water sources and structures at risk. As soon as they’re in cell range, the information is automatically uploaded.

“Before, we wouldn’t find that out until the fire crew came off the line at 6 or 7 at night,” she said. “Now we can collect it earlier in the day.” Some 8,000 firefighters are using the app.

Firefighter protection: In 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona when raging flames cut off their escape route. All used portable fire shelters that couldn’t withstand the intense heat.

That tragedy has touched off a quest to develop stronger shelters.

Josh Fody, a thermal engineer at NASA, has spent three years working on better shelters, using heat-shield technology developed for rockets landing on Mars. The project’s name, CHIEFS, stands for Convective Heating Improvements for Emergency Fire Shelters. Fifteen of the shelters are being carried by firefighters this year.

“Applying our technology to a tangible thing that will save lives was very meaningful,” Fody said. “Deploying fire shelters is very rare — it’s a last resort. But when it happens, being able to withstand intense heat for a short period of time is crucial.”

In 1953, the nation convened a firefighting summit at Camp Pendleton (San Diego County) called Operation Firestop. Participants sought ways to use surplus military technology from World War II and the Korean War and discussed research on chemical retardants, weather influences and aerial delivery.

Stephen Pyne, a fire historian and professor at the Arizona State University, says it’s time for Firestop 2.

“Let’s look at digital technology, see what can transfer, set up a large multiagency campaign,” he said. “The idea that there is a technological savior, a way to change the calculus and disrupt how we fight fires is delusional, but there are plenty of changes that could help.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @csaid


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