Technology changing how wildfires are fought
Computer technology is changing the way wildfires are being fought — and will soon allow firefighters in San Diego County to track on their smart phones what a blaze is doing and how it will evolve.
That groundwork was highlighted Friday during a seminar on wildfire preparedness seminar that drew more than 100 leaders of local fire agencies. The event was hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric Co in conjunction with the San Diego Fire Foundation.
Across the region, 170 steel electrical poles are equipped with small weather stations that constantly record wind speed and humidity levels.
Vegetation maps — updated regularly — show what kind of brush is growing and where, and how dry it has become. Historical data helps firefighters know when an area last burned, and how thick the fuel is — which gives them an idea of how fierce and hot a wildfire there might burn.
All these tools are being put together into one master predictive tool — a smart phone app — that makes millions of calculations every day.
If a fire were to start right here, with these winds and this humidity level, in a place that has't burned since 1960, with this topography, what would be destroyed? And what would be the best way to stop that from happening?
Fire scenarios are run over and over constantly in real time so that when a blaze starts firefighters will be able to make a darn good guess at what will happen next and where their resources should be deployed.
"San Diego Gas & Electric owns and operates the largest weather utility network anywhere in the country," said Brian D'Agostino, a meterologist for the utility who has overseen the weather networks construction which began eight years ago following the 2003 and 2007 firestorms that swept large parts of San Diego County.
"We run weather models and we're getting to the point now that we're taking all of this information and data and integrating it into world-class fire behavior models that have never been built before," he said. "They are being built for the first time right here in San Diego."
Joaquin Ramirez, CEO of Technosylva — a company working with SDG&E to develop the app — said the program already works and should be refined enough to be put in use before Santa Ana winds come this fall.
"This is providing intel of what the enemy is going to do," Ramirez said. Taking all the high-tech data now available, he said, and putting it together into a predictive model can give firefighters the chance to prepare for the immediate future before the fire spreads out of control.
He pointed out that during strong winds a wildfire could travel from Julian to Ramona in a matter of just a couple hours.
"The magic is to take all of those things and make it run in one second," he said.
Technology was only one aspect covered at Friday's event. Another speaker was Emily Young, a climate change expert, who said it is not yet known what effect rising temperatures will have on Santa Ana winds in the future.
"The biggest take away is that we might have longer and more unpredictable fire seasons," she said.
Fire officials say the extremely wet weather the region experienced this past winter was both a blessing and a curse.
The rain led to beautiful green grass all over the county, and for now the moisture level of the local vegetation is pretty high.That grass, however, has already begun drying out and come the height of fire season it will be especially vulnerable to fire.
Add to the mix tens of thousands of dead trees in the back country that have succumbed to combination of beetle infestation and drought, and this fire season could be disastrous.
Of course, that warning is given in one form or another every year, but every now and then it turns out to be true.
Aside from the mega-firestorms that hit the county last decade, as recently as May, 2014, a dozen smaller fires near the Pacific coast in heavily populated areas burned during unusual Santa Ana wind-like conditions.