Wildfire Firefighting Goes High-Tech

According to Berni Bahro, a regional fuel specialist with the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service, who is working out of that Southern California command center, the Forest Service is using the software to report on the region's "major" fires — specifically, the Witch fire, north of San Diego; the Harrison fire, south of San Diego; the Ranch fire, near the Angeles Forest; and the Buckweed fire, north of Los Angeles.

When making reports to Cal Fire — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Bahro's team hones in on recommending which areas are in the most danger and should be evacuated first.

"We're trying to understand all the information that is being provided [from the software], and how that information could best be used by fire managers," Bahro said. "We've been really successful, especially on fires of longer duration."

Satellites have also played a key role in fighting California's fires, specifically because of the strength of the Santa Ana winds, according to Bahro.

"When the fires are moving relatively slowly, it's kinda easy to track … where they've been," Bahro said. "But when winds are blowing really hard [as in this case], planes are grounded. We rely on satellite imagery to do that. At least it gives us an idea of where the fire is."

Those satellite images are then downloaded onto Google Earth maps to pinpoint the exact location and movement of the fire, he said.

According to Gary Zunino, director of the Fire Science Academy at the University of Nevada-Reno, which trains firefighters in the latest strategies, infrared imaging can help agencies see how blazes have grown overnight, and to determine its hottest parts.

"Firefighters will use it to plan for the next day — where to put their resources," said Zunino, who is a 20-year veteran in fighting wild-land fires.

Technology has also paved the development of new flame retardants that can be tremendously useful, especially when dropped from the air, he said. New retardants that resemble tin foil can be literally wrapped around structures to prevent them from catching fire.

Similarly, some homeowners, including the head of Dreamworks Jeffrey Katzenberg, have been applying a flame retardant to homes, which helps to protect the house from burning embers long before the fire arrives. Some owners have purchased a fire gel that can be applied with a garden hose.

Regardless of these technologies, Zunino said the principles of fighting the Southern California fires are the same as they have been for years. "They're still putting the wet stuff on the red stuff."

Sentiments like this, however, haven't stopped researchers from pursuing technological innovations to prevent fires altogether, or to at least stop them from getting so out of control.

That's the case for Matt Rahn, executive director of the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, a San Diego State University research field station that is currently evacuated because of its own proximity to the fire.

With a research group from SDSU, Rahn helped oversee the development of electronic sensors that can detect a fire that is only 4 feet by 4 feet, and is up to a quarter of a mile away. The sensors, which are still in the testing phase, work by detecting turbulent carbon dioxide, a gas that is unique to a wildfire. Once the gas is detected, the wireless devices notify appropriate fire authorities.

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