California Takes Steps to Strengthen Wildfire Prevention and Control

October 4, 2019 Updated: October 4, 2019

California is well into wildfire season, but the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) is always open to trying new technology to prevent and fight fires, while working with local fire departments to manage specific incidents, Scott McLean, CalFire deputy chief of communications, told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“We’re always coming up with new ideas to control fires,” McLean said.

On Oct. 2, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill modifying the state’s regulations on utility power shutoffs during severe wildfire conditions. The new law requires electric companies to mitigate the impact of shutoffs for customers with certain medical needs and even provide financial assistance for backup electricity to those customers.

The largest utility in California, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., shut off power in a large area of Northern California in September amidst dangerous weather conditions, impacting tens of thousands of customers.

According to Scientific American, CalFire is also now working on 35 high-priority fire prevention projects, including clearing brush and dead trees near homes and roadways. The projects are reportedly exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires environmental impact analyses for such projects, due to a declared state of emergency by the governor in March.

“These 35 priority projects were identified by geographic areas with populations that are particularly at risk during natural disasters,” stated the governor’s office at the time.

The Walker Fire, California’s biggest fire to date in 2019, burned a total of 54,608 acres after starting on Sept. 4 in the Plumas National Forest. It cost an estimated $35.6 million to fight. There are at least a dozen major fires now burning across the state, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group InciWeb site.

“Good weather, a cooling trend and rain in the northern part of the state are helping us to make progress with these fires,” McLean explained.

With the need to respond to 225 fires per week and guide fire departments throughout the state, CalFire relies heavily on technology to gain maximum advantage over weather, brush, and other elements that make fires difficult to fight. Additional state funding has enabled CalFire to obtain 400 seasonal firefighters, 13 new engines and crews to run them and a new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopter, the first of 12 replacement firefighting helicopters.

CalFire’s fire history maps — which are incorporating new technology that gives a more detailed view on small, isolated wind events and other weather factors — are being compiled by a team that updates various aspects of the fire after each incident, including causes, containment, evacuation zones and damage, according to McLean.

The maps combine detailed data about weather, topography, vegetation and the placement of roads and homes with fire hazard security zones, providing a more accurate look at the different zones in real time.

The maps are now being linked with apps that can be accessed on CalFire’s website. The website itself is being redesigned to incorporate new technology and make it easier to enable people to interact with the system.

“We always incorporate fire maps with historical data into our fire behavior prediction processes so that we can effectively deploy limited resources in the most efficient manner possible,” said Captain Tony Imbrenda, public information officer at the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which just received two Canadian firefighting aircraft known as “super scoopers.”

Los Angeles County has been leasing the aircraft from Quebec, Canada during each fire season for the last 26 years, reported the Los Angeles Times.

According to Imbrenda, “These aircraft will be used as part of a first alarm brush assignment if incident commanders feel that their capabilities will be appropriate for the given incident. Their 1600-gallon capacity and fast turnaround time help us to accomplish the goal of preventing small fires from growing into large incidents that extend into multiple operational periods.”

Imbrenda reported that Los Angeles County is placing two new Firehawk helicopters into service this season, bringing its air fleet to five Firehawks and five Bell 412s. He described it as “the largest, most robust initial air attack in the world.”

Supported by helicopters and fixed wing air tankers from Cal Fire, the Los Angeles Fire Department can “pour a lot of resources on fires while they are still small, greatly increasing overall efficiency,” he said.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Imbrenda believes that the timing of the equipment could not be better because of “offshore weather patterns” that “bring hotter, drier and windier conditions to the area, drying out fuels and increasing the probability of ignition.”

While the conditions that cause such fires have not yet materialized in 2019, authorities want to be ready. According to Imbrenda, “The weather is such that it could support that type of fire season, so whether or not it’s going to happen, it remains to be seen, but we always prepare for the worst.”