US wildfire threat levels - How technology helps in preparedness
By Karen Graham
At the end of last week, U.S. fire managers raised the National Fire Preparedness Level status to its highest level for the first time in two years as California and a number of other Western states are at high risk for lightning storms.
The National Fire Preparedness Level was raised from "PL-4" to "PL-5" of the five-point scale, recognizing that fire fighting resources have been strained to the limits this year. So far, in 2017, more than 41,000 wildfires have scorched over 6.0 million acres in the United States.
This move in raising the Preparedness Level also allows for the U.S. military and even other countries to be called upon to assist in firefighting, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
In 2015, the last time the Preparedness level was raised to PL-5, 200 U.S. Army soldiers were assigned to fight wildfires in Washington State for 30 days, while firefighting crews and aircraft from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were brought in to support firefighting efforts in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.
The unpredictable nature of wildfires
Fire fighters are well-trained in firefighting techniques and in the chemistry of fires, with many firefighters going on to specialize in fire and rescue operations, including aircraft/airport rescue, wilderness fire suppression, and search and rescue. They are also well-versed on the four elements of a fire - fuel, oxygen, heat, and a chemical reaction.
But the unpredictable nature of wildfires is one aspect of firefighting that is difficult to come to grips with. Wildfires are at the whims of nature - gusting winds, humidity, the lack of moisture in the soil, even the rains can affect their growth and spread. This unpredictable nature of wildfires was demonstrated with the King Fire in California in 2014.
The King Fire had its origins when an arsonist lit a piece of land ablaze. The small blaze was transformed into a disaster of epic proportions when Mother Nature stepped in, spreading the fire more than 10 miles to the surprise of those fighting it. The King Fire burned about 100,000 acres east of Placerville, California.
Technology in predicting wildfire behavior
Janice Coen and her colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, have been at work developing a technology that brings together data on weather, topography and other factors to predict how fires spread. Coen's technology incorporates data from weather services on anticipated weather with the current weather, and the fire's own internal patterns, accounting for interactions between the weather patterns, the land, and the blaze itself.
The technology was launched with Colorado firefighters in 2016. Colorado firefighters will be able to use their tablets to find automatically updated data on a fire and determine how and where a fire will grow or even predict where to allocate resources in advance of a fire.
"This is a really disruptive technology," said Coen. “People will say it’s a perfect storm of events, it could never have been predicted: the fuel, the terrain, the weather. What I found over 20 years of working on this is that the vast majority of the distinguishing characteristics of each event can be captured with the model.”
Computer technology and mini-weather stations
At a wildfire seminar hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric Co in conjunction with the San Diego Fire Foundation, fire officials from local agencies were introduced to computer technology that is changing the way wildfires are being fought. Seminar attendees learned about the 170 steel electrical poles equipped with small weather stations that constantly record wind speed and humidity levels that were spread across the region.
The attendees also learned about the vegetation maps, updated regularly, that show what kind of brush is being monitored and where it is located, as well as how dry it has become. The participants also found out that historical data was included, including the last time the area was burned, and how thick the fuel was. This information will give firefighters an idea of how fierce and hot a wildfire there might burn.
All the above information is contained in a smartphone app that makes millions of calculations every day. If a fire were to start in an area that hadn't burned since 1960, the app user would get information on wind, humidity, dryness, the kind of vegetation and how thick it is, as well as topography information that will give firefighters an idea of how fierce and hot a wildfire in that area might burn.
"San Diego Gas & Electric owns and operates the largest weather utility network anywhere in the country,” said Brian D’Agostino, a meteorologist 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, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune
Joaquin Ramirez, the 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.
Using high-tech data now available, they have created a predictive model that can give firefighters the chance to prepare for the immediate future before the fire spreads out of control. Talking about all the data sets that go into the model, he added, “The magic is to take all of those things and make it run in one second."
Of course, we also have drone technology, and fire-retardant dispensing aircraft, along with satellite imagery to aid firefighting crews in suppressing wildfires, but there is always room for more new and updated technologies.