Technology is playing a growing role in containing wildfires in the western United States

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – As drought and wind-caused forest fires have become more dangerous across the American West in recent years, firefighters have tried to make their preparations smarter.

They’re using new technology and better resource positioning to keep small fires from breaking out into mega-fires like the one that burned down a record 4% of California last year, or the largest wildfire in the country this year, charring a section got from Oregon, half the size of Rhode Island.

California has seen 730 more wildfires so far this year than the previous year, an increase of about 16%. But almost three times the area is burned – 470 square miles (1,200 square kilometers).

Catching fires faster gives firefighters a better chance of keeping them small.

This includes using new computer models of fire behavior that can help assess risks before a fire breaks out and then project their path and growth.

When “critical weather” is forecast – hot, dry wind, or thunderstorm – the technology enables California planners, in addition to their hard-earned experience, to use shovels and chainsaws to pre-position fire trucks, bulldozers, airplanes and handcrews in areas where they will respond more quickly be able.

With computer modeling, “they can do a daily risk forecast across the state and use it for planning,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for the Cal Fire Department of California.

That has helped Cal Fire keep an average of 95% of fires on 4 acres or less, even in poor conditions caused by drought or climate change, she said. So far this year it has kept 96.5% of the fires below 4 hectares.

Federal firefighters similarly track how dry vegetation has become in certain areas and then station teams and equipment before thunderstorms or in areas where people congregate during the holidays, said Stanton Florea, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In yet another effort to catch fire quickly, the once human-occupied fire towers in remote areas have been largely replaced by cameras, many of them in high definition and equipped with artificial intelligence to detect a plume of smoke from the morning mist. There are 800 such cameras scattered across California, Nevada, and Oregon, and even casual viewers can watch wildfires remotely in real time.

Firefighters can then “make tactical decisions based on what they see” before the firefighters even get to the scene, Tolmachoff said.

Fire department managers also routinely call in National Guard or Air Force military drones to fly over fires at night and use thermal imaging to map their boundaries and hot spots. With the help of satellite images, they can show the course of smoke and ash.

“Your job is to manage the fire, and these are tools that will help you do it” with an accuracy that was unheard of five years ago, said Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College in California and a widely recognized expert on forest fire policy .

In California, fire managers can overlay all of this information with high-quality topography maps for light detection and distance measurement, which can be useful in making forest management, infrastructure planning and preparation for forest fires, floods, tsunamis and landslides. Then they add the computer simulation of fire behavior based on weather and other variables.

Other mapping software can show active fires, fuel stoppages that slow their spread, mandatory burns, defensible spaces around homes, destroyed homes, and other damage from forest fires.

“It’s all still new, but we can see where it will take us in the future when it comes to planning for building homes in the wild, but also fighting fires in the wild,” said Tolmachoff.

Cal Fire and other fire departments took advantage of remote imaging and other technologies that can be vital in the early detection of forest fires early on, said John Bailey, a former firefighter and now a professor at Oregon State University.

Some experts argue that it is a lost battle against forest fires made worse by global warming, a century of reflexive forest fire fighting, and overgrown forests and communities creeping into once sparsely populated areas. Climate change has made the west hotter and drier in the past 30 years, and scientists have long warned that the weather will get more extreme as the world warms.

However, the goal of the firefighters is to reproduce the result of a fire that broke out in the Topanga Canyon community between Los Angeles and Malibu on Monday.

It had the potential to spread quickly through dry scrub but was kept to about 7 acres (3 acres) after water-dripping planes were jumbled up within minutes from LA and neighboring Ventura County.

What the firefighters don’t want is another wildfire as it devastated the Malibu area in 2018. It destroyed more than 1,600 buildings, killed three people and forced thousands to flee.

To get an early advantage, California is buying a dozen new Sikorsky Firehawk helicopters – for $ 24 million each – that operate at night, fly faster, drop more water, and haul more firefighters than the Bell UH-1H out of the During the Vietnam War “Hueys” will eventually replace them.

It will also soon receive seven C-130 military transport aircraft converted to carry 4,000 gallons (15,140 liters) of fire retardant, more than three times as much as Cal Fire’s workhorse S-2 airtanker.

Despite all of this, firefighters’ efforts to outsmart and suppress forest fires are counterproductive if they just postpone fires in areas that will eventually burn, argued Richard Minnich, a professor at Riverside who studies fire ecology.

“No matter how mature the technology is, the areas it can manage or physically affect are small,” he said. “We’re over our heads. You can have all the technology in the world – fire control is impossible. “

Working with forest fires is more realistic by using patches that have previously burned to channel the spread of new fires.

Timothy Ingalsbee, a former federal firefighter who now heads Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, also said firefighters need to take a fresh approach when facing the most dangerous wind-powered forest fires, skipping containment lines by putting flaming embers a mile or more looking ahead of the main inferno.

Better to build more fireproof homes and use scarce resources to protect threatened communities while the fires keep burning around them, he said.

“We have these amazing tools that allow us to map the spread of fire in real time and model it better than weather forecasts,” said Ingalsbee. “With this technology, we can be more strategic and work with fire to keep people and homes safe, but let fire do the job it needs to do – that is, recycle all of the dead material in soil.”


Associated Press writers Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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