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Can technology predict wildfires? New systems attempt to better forecast their spread

By Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

When freak lightning storms passed over Northern California's wine country last month and sparked hundreds of wildfires, a newly established network of remote weather stations, orbiting satellites and supercomputers spun into action and attempted to predict the spread of what is now known as the LNU Lightning Complex fire.

Firefighters and technologists have long dreamed of a formula or device that would accurately predict the spread of fire, much the way meteorologists predict the possible effect of extreme weather, but it's only recently that big data and supercomputers have begun to show promise as a means of fire forecasting.

"I think a firefighter starting out today in his or her career, they're going to see something to the point where they leave the (station) on the fire, they'll have a simulation on their screen of where the fire is going to go, where they need to do evacuations," said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst with Cal Fire since 2000.

Past forecasts relied on huge assumptions about the landscape and upcoming weather, but today's forecasts are based on a web of remote weather stations, cameras and satellites merged with ground-level details on vegetation and moisture. Now California firefighters and the state's largest power utilities are hoping these networks will help them to better plan evacuations and more precisely target power shutoffs in times of emergency.

The technology Cal Fire uses, created by La Jolla-based Technosylva, was brought into the department in July under a three-year, $8.8-million contract and has yet to be fully rolled out across the agency, department spokeswoman Christine McMorrow said. But the program has already been used by a handful of Cal Fire analysts who ran simulations of where the flames were expected to be eight hours later.

"We did one for the LNU Complex and it did show a rapid rate of spread," McMorrow said, referring to what is now, at well more than 360,000 acres burned, the fourth largest fire in state record books. "They are pleased with what they're getting from it."


The state's big three electric utilities are also using the technology.

In August, Edison said it ran simulations of potential fires before shutting off power to circuits in Los Angeles and Kern counties. A few weeks later, PG&E ran simulations of where the LNU Complex fire was headed before they decided to spray some 7,000 power poles with retardant.

When wind events are in the forecast, Edison, PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric said their preemptive power shutdowns should affect about 30% fewer people than they did last year, in part because of a better grasp of where the fire threats are greatest.

Facing serious liability under California's inverse-condemnation laws, utilities shut off sections of their grid on hot, windy days, when the equipment is most at risk of sparking a wildfire. Last year, such power shutoffs led to millions of Californians going for days without electricity.


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