SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As drought- and wind-driven wildfires have become more dangerous across the American West in recent years, firefighters have tried to become smarter in how they prepare.
They’re using new technology and better positioning of resources in a bid to keep small blazes from erupting into mega-fires like the ones that torched a record 4% of California last year, or the nation’s biggest wildfire this year that has charred a section of Oregon half the size of Rhode Island.
There have been 730 more wildfires in California so far this year than last, an increase of about 16%. But nearly triple the area has burned — 470 square miles.
Catching fires more quickly gives firefighters a better chance of keeping them small.
That includes using new fire behavior computer modeling that can help assess risks before fires start, then project their path and growth.
When “critical weather” is predicted — hot, dry winds or lightning storms — the technology, on top of hard-earned experience, allows California planners to pre-position fire engines, bulldozers, aircraft and hand crews armed with shovels and chain saws in areas where they can respond more quickly.
With the computer modeling, “they can do a daily risk forecast across the state, so they use that for planning,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, California’s firefighting agency.
That’s helped Cal Fire hold an average 95% of blazes to 10 acres or less even in poor conditions driven by drought or climate change, she said. So far this year it’s held 96.5% of fires below 10 acres.
Federal firefighters similarly track how dry vegetation has become in certain areas, then station crews and equipment ahead of lightning storms or in areas where people gather during holidays, said Stanton Florea, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
In another effort to catch fires quickly, what once were fire lookout towers staffed by humans have largely been replaced with cameras in remote areas, many of them in high-definition and armed with artificial intelligence to discern a smoke plume from morning fog. There are 800 such cameras scattered across California, Nevada and Oregon, and even casual viewers can remotely watch wildfires in real time.
Fire managers can then “start making tactical decisions based on what they can see,” even before firefighters reach the scene, Tolmachoff said.
Fire managers also routinely summon military drones from the National Guard or Air Force to fly over fires at night, using heat imaging to map their boundaries and hot spots. They can use satellite imagery to plot the course of smoke and ash.
“Your job is to manage the fire, and these are tools that will help you do so” with a degree of accuracy unheard of even five years ago, said Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College in California and a widely recognized wildfire policy expert.
In California, fire managers can overlay all that information on high-quality Light Detection and Ranging topography maps that can aid decisions on forest management, infrastructure planning and preparation for wildfires, floods, tsunamis and landslides. Then they add the fire behavior computer simulation based on weather and other variables.
Other mapping software can show active fires, fuel breaks designed to slow their spread, prescribed burns, defensible space cleared around homes, destroyed homes and other wildfire damage.