SACRAMENTO, Calif .– As drought and wind-driven wildfires have become more dangerous in the American West in recent years, firefighters have tried to get smarter in their preparation.
They’re using new technology and better positioning of resources with the goal of preventing small fires from turning into mega-fires like the ones that set California a record 4% last year, or the biggest blaze. of the country’s forest this year that charred a section of Oregon, half the size of Rhode Island.
There have been 730 more fires in California so far this year than last year, an increase of about 16%. But nearly triple the area burned – 470 square miles (1,200 square kilometers).
Catching fires faster gives firefighters a better chance at keeping them small.
This includes the use of novel computer modeling of fire behavior that can help assess risks before fires start, and then project their trajectory and growth.
When “critical weather” is forecast – hot, dry winds or lightning storms – the technology, in addition to hard-earned experience, allows California planners to pre-position fire trucks, bulldozers, airplanes and airplanes. hand teams armed with shovels and chainsaws in areas where they can react more quickly.
With computer modeling, “they can do a daily statewide risk forecast, so they use it for planning,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokesperson for Cal Fire, the California anti-disaster agency. fires.
This has helped Cal Fire contain an average of 95% of fires on 10 acres (4 hectares) or less, even in poor conditions due to drought or climate change, she said. So far this year, it has held 96.5% of fires below 10 acres (4 hectares).
Federal firefighters also monitor changes in dry vegetation in some areas, then station crews and equipment before thunderstorms or in areas where people congregate during the holidays, said US spokesperson Stanton Florea. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. .
In another effort to catch fires quickly, what were once human-staffed fire watch towers have been largely replaced with cameras in remote areas, many in high definition and armed with artificial intelligence to discern a plume of smoke from the morning fog. There are 800 of these cameras scattered across California, Nevada, and Oregon, and even casual viewers can watch wildfires from a distance in real time.
Fire officials can then “start making tactical decisions based on what they can see,” even before firefighters reach the scene, Tolmachoff said.
Fire officials also regularly summon National Guard or Air Force military drones to fly over fires at night, using thermal imagery to map their boundaries and hotspots. They can use satellite imagery to trace the path of the smoke and ash.
“Your job is to manage the fire, and these are the tools that will help you do it” with a level of precision unheard of just five years ago, said Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College in California and an expert. widely recognized in forest fire policy. .
In California, fire managers can overlay all of this information onto high-quality light sensing and remote sensing topographic maps that can help make decisions about forest management, infrastructure planning and fire preparedness. forest, 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 cuts designed to slow their spread, prescribed burns, defensible space cleared around homes, destroyed homes, and other damage from wildfires.
“Everything is still new, but we can see where it will take us in the future when it comes to planning the construction of houses in the wilderness area, but also combating forest fires,” said Tolmachoff.
Cal Fire and other firefighting agencies were the first to adopt remote imagery and other technologies that can be essential for early detection of wildfires, said John Bailey, a former firefighter and now professor at Oregon State University.
Some experts say it’s a losing battle against forest fires made worse by global warming, a century of reflexive suppression of wildfires and overgrown forests, and communities infiltrating it. which were once sparsely populated areas. Climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past 30 years, and scientists have long warned that the weather will become more extreme as the world warms.
However, the firefighters’ goal is to reproduce the outcome of a fire that broke out on Monday in the community of Topanga Canyon, between Los Angeles and Malibu.
It had the potential to quickly spread through dry brush, but was limited to around 3 hectares (7 acres) after water-dropped planes were scrambled within minutes of LA and neighboring Ventura County.
What the firefighters don’t want is another wildfire like the one that ravaged the Malibu region in 2018. It destroyed more than 1,600 structures, killed three people and forced thousands to flee.
In another attempt to gain an early advantage, California purchases a dozen new Sikorsky Firehawk helicopters – at $ 24 million each – that can operate at night, fly faster, drop more water, and carry more firefighters than the Bell UH-1H from the time of the Vietnam War. “Hueys” which they will eventually replace.
It will also soon receive seven surplus military C-130 transport planes upgraded to carry 4,000 gallons (15,140 liters) of flame retardants, more than three times as many as Cal Fire’s S-2 tankers.
However, firefighters’ efforts to thwart and suppress forest fires are counterproductive if they only postpone the fires to areas that will eventually burn, argued Richard Minnich, a professor at Riverside who studies ecology. fires.
“No matter how sophisticated the technology, the areas they can manage or have a physical impact on things are small,” he said. “We are above our heads. You can have all the technology in the world – fire control is impossible. “
Working with forest fires is more realistic, he said, taking advantage of patches that were previously burning to channel the spread of new fires.
Timothy Ingalsbee, a former federal firefighter who now heads the Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Environment, also said firefighters need to take a new approach to the most dangerous wildfires caused by wind overtaking containment lines by raining flaming embers a mile or more away. from the main hell.
It’s best to build more fire-resistant homes and devote limited resources to protecting threatened communities while letting fires burn 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 the weather forecast,” said Ingalsbee. “Using this technology, we can start to be more strategic and to work with fire to keep people safe, to keep homes safe, but let fire do the job it needs to do, that is – say recycle all dead material in the ground.
Associated Press editors Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this story.