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California Relies on Planes, Lessons From Past to Prevent Deadly Blazes


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California Relies on Planes, Lessons From Past to Prevent Deadly Blazes

https://www.wsj.com/articles/california-relies-on-planes-lessons-from-past-to-prevent-deadly-blazes-11572688801?mod=hp_lead_pos3

California has battled some of its biggest wildfires this year with a new weapon: a plane outfitted with infrared sensors that can see through smoke to plot the blazes’ perimeters and transmit the coordinates to firefighters in real-time.

The plane has mapped many of the major fires that have exploded in the past few weeks, including five in the greater Los Angeles area and the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Quicker access to accurate maps allows firefighters to more effectively deploy equipment and personnel.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, has logged more than 5,000 wildfires in the state so far this year, but none has caused mass casualties or massive damage, like last year’s Camp Fire in which 85 people perished and the town of Paradise was destroyed.

The Easy Fire in Southern California has forced mandatory evacuations and blackouts as both ends of the state struggle to contain blazes.

Firefighting leaders credit that in part to newer techniques used by fire crews. Some, like the mapping plane, involve advanced technology. Others rely simply on learning from experience and prepositioning personnel and equipment so they can contain blazes at an earlier stage.

“For better or for worse, experience breeds an enhanced skill set,” said Matt Jolly, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s fire-sciences lab in Missoula, Mont.

The state also benefited from a wet winter that kept fuel damp, helping lead to a fairly mellow start to fire season.

Cal Fire officials say blazes like the deadly Camp Fire that burned through the town of Paradise last year and the Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa in 2017 have helped improve the public’s preparedness and willingness to leave when evacuations are called. Chris Harvey, a Cal Fire spokesman, recently helped patrol an area being evacuated as a result of the Kincade Fire and said he only found one person still at home.

Friday, October 25

As the fire grew, fire fighters raced to construct, hold and improve their fire lines using direct tactics, including putting water on the flame, lighting back fires and deploying hand crews to clear flammable materials like pine needles on the ground or low limbs on trees that could help spread the fire.

Fire burned in steep, remote terrain where narrow roads make access difficult and slow.

Fire perimeter as of Friday, 4:06 a.m.

Firefighters priortized keeping the fire east of Highway 101.

Fire burned in steep, remote terrain where narrow roads make access difficult and slow.

Fire perimeter as of Friday, 4:06 a.m.

Firefighters priortized keeping the fire east of Highway 101.

Fire burned in steep, remote terrain where narrow roads make access difficult and slow.

Fire perimeter as of Friday, 4:06 a.m.

Firefighters priortized keeping the fire east of Highway 101.

Fire burned in steep, remote terrain where narrow roads make access difficult and slow.

Fire perimeter as of Friday, 4:06 a.m.

Firefighters priortized keeping the fire east of Highway 101.

Sunday, October 27

High winds over the weekend made fighting the fire directly too risky, so firefighters put more focus on indirect techniques, like using bulldozers to create fire breaks and hand crews to clear lines and put out hot spots starting up downwind.

The northwest border was dug into considerably, as the fire initially had been seen moving north.

Fire perimeter as of Sunday, 7:03 p.m.

Firefighters had tried to make a stand on Route 128, but the fire jumped the road and moved southward and around the lines.

Embers blown by the strong winds push the fire faster and farther.

The northwest border was dug into considerably, as the fire initially had been seen moving north.

Firefighters had tried to make a stand on Route 128, but the fire jumped the road and moved southward and around the lines.

Fire perimeter as of Sunday, 7:03 p.m.

Embers blown by the strong winds push the fire faster and farther.

The northwest border was dug into considerably, as the fire initially had been seen moving north.

Firefighters had tried to make a stand on Route 128, but the fire jumped the road and moved southward and around the lines.

Fire perimeter as of Sunday, 7:03 p.m.

Embers blown by the strong winds push the fire faster and farther.

The northwest border was dug into considerably, as the fire initially had been seen moving north.

Fire perimeter as of Sunday, 7:03 p.m.

Embers blown by the strong winds push the fire faster and farther.

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Firefighters had tried to make a stand on Route 128, but the fire jumped the road and moved southward and around the lines.

Wednesday, October 30

Winds died down after the weekend, initially allowing direct tactics again. Hand crews were sent to clear flammable material in all directions the fire could move.

Crews watched for high flames due to wind shifts and constructed and improved the bulldozed line.

Fire perimeter as of Wednesday, 5:15 a.m.

Hot spots detected,

current fire location

With the west side of the fire mostly contained, crews patrolled around structures for embers.

Crews did perimeter control and identified potential contingency lines.

Crews watched for high flames due to wind shifts and constructed and improved the bulldozed line.

Hot spots detected,

current fire location

Fire perimeter as of Wednesday, 5:15 a.m.

With the west side of the fire mostly contained, crews patrolled around structures for embers.

Crews did perimeter control and identified potential contingency lines.

Crews watched for high flames due to wind shifts and constructed and improved the bulldozed line.

Hot spots detected,

current fire location

Fire perimeter as of Wednesday, 5:15 a.m.

With the west side of the fire mostly contained, crews patrolled around structures for embers.

Crews did perimeter control and identified potential contingency lines.

Hot spots detected,

current fire location

Crews watched for high flames due to wind shifts and constructed and improved the bulldozed line.

Fire perimeter as of Wednesday, 5:15 a.m.

Crews did perimeter control and identified potential contingency lines.

With the west side of the fire mostly contained, crews patrolled around structures for embers.

When a wildfire ignited Sunday morning near the Carquinez Bridge, a key piece of Interstate 80 at the northeastern tip of the San Francisco Bay Area, experience and preplanning helped save the day.

The region was under a red-flag warning—an alert issued by weather authorities when winds are high, humidity is low and fires are likely—so area firefighting agencies had beefed up their staffing levels and prepositioned extra ladder trucks and engines to roll out quickly.

Vallejo firefighters had also battled fires on that stretch of freeway before and knew flames were likely to run up a nearby hill, so they dispatched two engines to the top of the hill to attack the wildfire as it headed in that direction.

“Gotta learn from experience, right?” said Kevin Brown, a spokesman for the Vallejo Fire Department.

When a brush fire broke out near the Getty Center in Los Angeles early Monday, the Los Angeles Fire Department, or LAFD, immediately tapped a supercomputer known as WIFIRE that is housed at the University of California, San Diego. That computer used real-time weather information, known fire corridors and other data to project where the blaze might spread.

Within a few hours of hearing about the fire, which began in Sepulveda Pass, LAFD had deployed the mapping plane, which is operated by a multicounty pilot program in Southern California known as the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System.

“It’s flying almost nonstop at this point,” said Brian Fennessy, fire chief with the Orange County Fire Authority.

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With a map of the fire’s edges quickly in hand, as well as predictions about where the fire would go, officials were able to plan evacuations and make sure fire engines and other equipment were headed to where they would be of most use, said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas.

“Minutes matter when fires are traveling at high rates of speed, especially at night when people are sleeping,” Chief Terrazas said.

When the Easy Fire sparked in Ventura County’s Simi Valley just north of Los Angeles a few days later, Chief Terrazas used WIFIRE to model what might happen, then texted the Ventura County Fire chief to say he would be sending over a strike team and a helicopter.

“It doesn’t get any faster than that,” he said.

Write to Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com

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