Historic drought intensifies fire response challenges

As data analysis makes its way into everything from marketing to agriculture, its relevance to firefighting has become increasingly apparent. Some of the most important examples include communications, logistics, and geospatial information systems (GIS). 

These developments have occurred in tandem with growing concerns surrounding the ongoing wildfires in California and across the Western United States. The severity of wildfires and duration of fire season is increasing with catastrophic intensity each year due to several complex and interrelated factors.  

Drought conditions and fire risk

California is currently experiencing the worst drought conditions since 2016 as per the US Federal Drought Monitor Map, with severe to exceptional drought covering 87.95% of the state. Officials across the country have found a variety of ways to express their mounting concerns.

The USDA has declared the state “an agricultural disaster area”. The Hoover Dam contains the lowest water levels in recorded history, as University of Arizona climate scientist Michael Crimmins hopes for a monsoon. The governor of Utah has asked residents to “pray for rain”. 

While this water shortage is impacting everything from agriculture to biodiversity to drinking water supply, the interactions between drought and wildfire are of particular concern. 

A longer, drier wildfire season

As spring arrives earlier and earlier each year in our changing climate, Cal Fire has publicly stated that fire season is a thing of the past; we can “take the season out, it’s year round”. Global warming, water shortages, and wildfires are intricately linked in a brutal, interconnected system that is changing the nature of fires themselves. 

As explained in an article by National Geographic, climate change is associated with environmental conditions including reduced rain and snowfall, warmer and drier air, and widespread forest death. Together, these factors have produced unparalleled fire conditions that are responsible for resource strain, growing destruction, and ecological disaster.  

Reduced rainfall and snowpack both contribute to dry soil, dry air, and plant death (which is further exacerbated by poor soil conditions). This has several implications: 

  • Dry air acts like a kind of sponge, pulling even more moisture out of the surrounding environment. 
  • This serves to magnify drought conditions and create even more inhospitable ecosystems for dwindling plant populations. 
  • These conditions cause millions of dead plants to dry out, leaving acres of natural tinder, sometimes called “flash fuel”. 
  • All of this is compounded by reduced snowpack, which melts quickly in the unnatural heat and leaves the Southwest drier even earlier in the year. 

The dangers of fire suppression

A first responder uses a drip torch to light a control line along the side of a road.
A first responder uses a drip torch along a control line as part of a prescribed burn in western Oregon. Photo by Bureau of Land Management, Oregon & Washington.

Fire suppression is a big business in California, with close to a billion dollars in revenue in the 2017-2018 fire season. However, this system was built on a dangerous disregard for the inevitable necessity of fires in California’s ecosystem. 

This reality is gaining increasing recognition among first responders like Lenya Quinn-Davidson, an area fire adviser for the University of California. She is a part of a growing group working to form burn cooperatives and develop community efforts like burner certificate programs. She hopes to encourage a healthy cultural relationship to controlled burns, which she views as an essential tool for any responsible land owner.

Prescribed burning — a practice that involves intentionally setting small, controlled blazes — was common for thousands of years among many of the indigenous groups in what is now California. Researchers at UC Berkeley estimate that close to 11.8 million acres were burned this way each year at the peak of the practice. However, this practice was outlawed by European settlers, with no consideration of the environmental impact that action might have had. 

Prescribed burning was essential to clear out dried plants (potential flash fuel), renew the soil, and reduce the scope and intensity of wildfires. This practice was banned for well over a century, which has produced a backlog that will require an enormous investment to clear. 

California has introduced a plan to partner with indigenous fire experts in an effort to treat 100,000 acres per year with prescribed burning over the next five years. This is a step in the right direction, and part of a growing effort to bring first responders, government officials, and community members together in the fight against wildfires.

Looking Forward: Innovation in fire response

Hundreds of thousands of acres have already burned as first responders continue to fight fires in 38 counties across the Southwest as of June 14th. They face the dangers of a “catastrophic fire season”, exacerbated by dry conditions projected to continue through September, with minimal resources. 

As they fight budget cuts, resource shortages, logistical difficulties, and more, firefighters have increasingly turned to technological solutions. 

Recent developments in fire management

In 2019, the state of California rolled out a new plan that highlighted the development of core fire management capabilities, including:

  • Cal Fire internal operations including logistical efficiency efforts and standardized communication protocols.
  • Innovation in technological solutions to firefighting, and integration of existing data into planning.
  • Health and safety efforts to protect first responders in the face of the pandemic.

This, and a recent pledge of half a billion dollars to go towards fighting and preventing wildfires, hiring more first responders, and preventative forest management, are clear indicators of the state’s commitment to reducing the threat posed by the constantly expanding blazes. 

Two firefighters extinguish a burning aircraft.
Firefighters extinguish a simulated aircraft fire during a training at at the San Bernardino Regional Emergency Training Center. A recent pledge of half a billion dollars will go in part towards hiring and training additional firefighters to prepare for the coming wildfire season. Photo by California National Guard.

These efforts have taken place in combination with innovative uses of geospatial information systems (GIS) and mapping technology. GIS datasets are available by year from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. These provide information surrounding things like fire threat layers, fire perimeters, and priority landscapes. 

Cal Fire also uses FlamMap, a fire mapping and analysis system that can predict fire behaviors like rate of spread and the projected size of a blaze. This information is essential for modern firefighting tactics. 

Location and information sharing technology including CAD, GPS, and even public safety apps have become essential tools for first responders. In some regions, fire departments have started using drones to conduct rapid foreground assessment.      

These innovations have allowed exponential development in essential areas like situational awareness, logistics, and risk management. The climbing intensity and risk associated with wildfires has only made the need for new technological solutions for fire prevention and management more pressing. 

As explained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, “Firefighters need to access accurate, up-to-date maps in the heat of the fight — and on the front lines — even when they may be miles from the nearest available network connection”. In response, a team from Michigan Tech is working to develop a data ferry to help combat poor network connectivity. 

Yet another potential solution is being sought in logistics technology. Real-time data collection and integrated inter-department communication have the potential to save lives, property, and scarce resources in the fight against wildfires. 

In a recent interview, San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey highlighted the ways in which he worked to facilitate communication in the face of the pandemic. This process involved the use of technologies like Zoom, Survey123, and Google Sheets. 

Munsey also highlighted the integral nature of developing inter-departmental communication channels. This process brought about unprecedented efficiency in everything from inventory tracking “down to the station and unit levels”, to strategic inter-jurisdictional planning. 

Where is Firefighting Headed?

Even with constant technological innovation, limitations in data organization and transmission are an ever-present challenge for firefighters. This has sparked a diverse set of efforts as people step up to develop creative, groundbreaking solutions. There are three essential areas which hold particular importance in efforts to combat the ongoing crisis. 

1. Communication technology

As teams from multiple jurisdictions fight multiple fires simultaneously, the need for efficient inter-departmental communication has become increasingly clear. Some current projects aim to standardize existing technology to allow for more effective exchange of information. 

Other efforts prioritize data collection and transmission. Organizations that have taken initiative in this area include Perimeter, which has developed a platform to allow first responders and citizens to access the benefits of real-time situational intelligence and collaboration.

2. Resource Management

One often overlooked aspect of resource management is data organization. Firefighting agencies often rely on a mutual aid network that was only formally recognized in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina. Since then it has become the National Mutual Aid System. 

Leaders working with the International Association of Fire Chiefs including Jeff Dulin, Patrick Land, and Mike Cox are developing an updated and comprehensive version of this program. Their efforts prioritize real-time inventory-related information sharing between agencies across the United States.

3. Geospatial Information Systems

As they work toward proactive firefighting strategies, first responders are increasingly recognizing the importance of GIS technology. 

Prescribed burning is a product of careful planning and environmental analysis. This process is nearly impossible without satellite images and maps provided via GIS. These programs will grow in importance as California takes steps toward implementing prescribed burning. 

The National Parks Service has already taken steps to integrate GIS technology into their strategic toolbox as a mechanism to increase situational awareness and plan prescribed burns. 

Conclusion

As we face higher fire risks and larger blazes, we must continue to develop our fire management strategies. The importance of these innovations will only increase with time, especially in relation to environmental factors like drought and climate change.  

It is impossible to overstate the significance of the steps taken by first responders to bring technological solutions to the fight against wildfires. It is only with the dedication and bravery of firefighting teams that we can hope to beat the blaze.


By Kate Marin. Questions? Get in touch at kate@perimeterplatform.com.

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