Firefighters Using New Technology to Battle California Wildfires

by Amy Myers

After a considerable increase in wildfires and burned wildlands from 2020, California’s firefighters have some good news to share. California has faced some serious heat this year. Already in 2021, the state has seen an increase of 16% in wildfires, which equates to 730 more wildfires and 470 square miles burned. Thankfully, though, Cal Fire, California’s firefighting agency, has created a new tool that will help detect the site of flames earlier, helping firefighters contain the disaster quicker. This results in smaller burn areas, preserving more of the state’s wildlands.

The new technology is fire behavior computer modeling that helps assess the fire-related risk factors of an area. This can mean hot, dry weather, high winds, lightning storms or other flame-inducing weather. Once the risk factors are determined, the computer model then predicts the fire’s path and growth.

Ultimately, this gives firefighter’s the precious extra minutes they need to prep their equipment for the flames.

“They can do a daily risk forecast across the state, so they use that for planning,” explained Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire.

Firefighters Already Prove New Technology Is Effective

As California firefighters well know, prevention is key when it comes to fighting wildfires. Rarely does the mission result in success when a fire has already consumed dozens of square miles. That’s why this new computer technology is so vital to the job. Whereas last year might have felt like a losing battle, this year, firefighters are fighting fire with digitally-projected fire. Now, crews can keep a closer eye on high-risk areas and station themselves in close proximity.

Already the new tool has proven successful. This year, Cal Fire has been able to maintain 96.5% of wildfires to an area of 10 acres. And the computer modeling has even influenced a few other technological upgrades in other areas as well.

California, Nevada and Oregon are quickly replacing the people in their watchtowers with high-definition cameras. The new digital employees utilize artificial intelligence that can help tell the difference between midmorning fog and actual smoke. That way, not only can the fire-watchers keep an eye on the areas from a safe distance, but they also have the added technology to better analyze the areas. Already, the three states have installed 800 cameras in the watchtowers.

Meanwhile, at night, the National Guard flies military drones over the high-risk areas in the west. The drones use heat and satellite imagery to locate the boundaries of a wildfire, while also pinpointing smoke and ash. This not only provides information about the fire but also protects nearby citizens from the aftermath of compromised air quality.

Of the brave firefighters protecting the west’s woodlands, Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College in California said, “Your job is to manage the fire, and these are tools that will help you do so.”