Smoke from the Cave Fire billowed over Santa Barbara as Steve Gazdik sat in an infrared- and radar-equipped airplane flying above the 3,000-acre blaze.
With the assistance of a camera on the airplane’s nose, Mr. Gazdik zoomed in on the fire on his laptop computer, on the lookout for still-burning embers through infrared. He then charted the fire’s edges, matching them to geographic features through Google Earth and transmitting the resulting info to decision makers on the ground.
“It’s a geek’s delight, airborne,” stated Mark Zaller, chief technology officer for Courtney Aviation, which operates the airplane. The aircraft is part of a multicounty program in Southern California backed by $4.5 million in state funds that’s placing state-of-the-art technology to work combating increasingly dangerous wildfires.
The three-month-old program marks a giant change for firefighting agencies whose tactics have traditionally been low-tech. They hope the brand new capabilities will assist them rein in damage during California’s lengthening fire season by sending personnel to the proper locations quicker to manage or extinguish a blaze.
“It provides us, as decision makers, a chance to take the limited number of resources which are coming in and focus them,” stated Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority.
This system, along with a wet winter and a few favorable winds, has played a role in a reasonably mild 2019 fire season. None of the more than 5,600 wildfires logged by Cal Fire, the state fire-protection agency, has caused mass casualties or injury like last yr’s Camp Fire, which destroyed the city of Paradise and killed 85 folks.
Once the airplane is airborne over a blaze, the technologies usually allow firefighters to create an entire map within several minutes. Previously the method took a complete day, as fire crews drew maps by hand or compiled info from GPS devices they carried.
The push to adopt such technologies took off in 2015, when Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas was perusing Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine and read about a supercomputer that might predict the trail of a wildfire.
Eager to find out if it might help his division, Chief Terrazas visited the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a part of the University of California, San Diego, the place thousands of computer processors stand in rows of black racks.
He met Ilkay Altintas, head of the WIFIRE Lab, where the supercomputer he examine combines real-time weather information, topography and details about the dryness of brush to model, within minutes, how a wildfire would possibly spread and at what speed.
Dr. Altintas needed funding so she might collect more information for her lab’s fire model. Chief Terrazas promised his division might provide information in exchange for near-real-time maps his firefighters might use to figure out where blazes are headed.
Today, LAFD and other agencies routinely call on the supercomputer center to work together with the mapping airplane. The airplane, operated by Courtney Aviation, is a part of a program backed by the state funding.
The effort typically comes together on the Southern California Wildfire Fusion Center, a kind of war room housed in a downtown Los Angeles fire station, where TVs are tuned to the Weather Channel and local newscasts.
There, personnel can tap the supercomputer for a model that projects how a fire would spread in 30-minute increments. That model can later be mixed with the perimeter map drawn by the mapping airplane to turn into more precise. The data is delivered to firefighters through cellphones.
LAFD Capt. Tim Werle stated the brand new system was significantly useful throughout October’s 8,799-acre Saddle Ridge Fire in the San Fernando Valley.
“We had been running our models, they usually were pretty spot-on,” he stated. The data helped determine where to deploy fire crews and helped local leaders devise evacuation plans.
A separate program funded by Southern California Edison has beefed up the Orange County Fireplace Authority’s capability to combat blazes from the air at night utilizing a “helitanker.” The gadget, operated by Coulson Aviation USA, can carry 1,000 gallons of water, or roughly 3 times the capacity of a typical water-dropping helicopter, and refill with out touchdown.
On a latest evening, pilot Toni Lindschinger boarded a reconnaissance helicopter that accompanies the helitanker. He donned military-grade night-vision goggles that give him and his team the ability to fly after dark and hover safely over massive bodies of water throughout a refill.
The night-vision goggles turned the blackened panorama shades of green, allowing a view of individual trees and bushes on the hillsides, as well as waves on a lake because the helitanker dipped near the shoreline and used an orange snorkel pump to fill its tank in less than a minute.
With the ability to hover over any body of water means the team doesn’t have to land and await a refill, giving it extra time at night, when winds typically die down and temperatures ease—an ideal time to attempt to get a handle on a blaze.
Joel Lane, a contracted aerial supervisor working for the Orange County Fire Authority, pointed to a small brush fire in the Santiago Canyon area of Orange County, which was knocked out in just a few hours with the assistance of the helitanker and other plane.
If these plane plus additional air sources had been called in for a second day—by which time the fire might have grown—he estimates they would have cost upward of $300,000.