Tuesday, October 23, 2007
By Todd R. Weiss
With 14 major wildfires ravaging thousands of acres of land, homes and businesses across Southern California, high-tech tools such as GPS technology, satellite imaging systems and aerial photography have been helping firefighters and other officials track the destructive paths of the massive blazes.
But while technology can be helpful, right now it's no match for the powerful Santa Ana winds fueling the fires, which continue to build in intensity and destructiveness. So far, upward of 500,000 people have been forced from their homes.
"Tried and true methods [including water, manpower and creating firebreaks] are being used now to try to get things under control," said MaryAnn Aldrich, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) in Sacramento. With conditions so volatile, the most important task becomes the age-old practice of fighting the fires, protecting lives and immediately dealing with the situation at hand, she said. Later, when the winds die down, firefighters can turn to technology to help them do their jobs, she said.
Firefighters have begun using various GPS technologies to map out the progress of wildfires over the last several years, Aldrich said. They are also trying out other kinds of high-tech aids, such as devices that use infrared images to "see" moisture levels in shrubs and grasses. "We're always striving to stay on the cutting edge," Aldrich said.
So far, fires are burning in seven counties -- San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura -- and states of emergency have been declared in those counties, according to Cal Fire.
Glenn Nader, the natural resources adviser for the University of California Agricultural Extension in Yuba City , said one technology that continues to help firefighters is geographic information system (GIS) mapping data, which can be combined in layers to provide details on topography, fire history, roads, access and population. "It gives you kind of a plan," Nader said.
Also critical is the use of GPS navigational technology to help firefighters arriving from other areas during emergencies, he said. Because they are from out of town, they don't know where fire hydrants and other water supplies are, so they can use the GPS tools on their trucks to quickly find water supplies to battle the blazes, he said.
Reverse 911 systems are also being used, Nader said. They enable police and fire officials to quickly issue evacuation notices to thousands of residents at a time. "They can target a community and tell everyone to evacuate," he said. "Sometimes when you've got these kinds of fires, you've got to rely on technology to let people know that an evacuation is being ordered."
But while GPS, computer modeling and satellite and infrared imaging technologies are already helping firefighters, other high-tech methods are still in the development pipeline, including new kinds of computer modeling systems and improved ways of using GPS data to give real-time reports of fire activity and direction.
Ming-Hsiang Tsou, an associate professor of geography at San Diego State University, is working with other researchers on improved mobile GIS tools that would allow firefighters to instantaneously report the locations and boundaries of a fire to a central database where conditions can be constantly monitored.
Such systems are now being tested, he said. Tsou's department has a website that is monitoring the fire zones in the state.
Peter Sadler, a geology professor at the University of California, Riverside, said he is working on computer modeling of fires with a twist -- instead of modeling how fires will move and change direction and grow or retreat, he is modeling the growth of shrubbery, grasses and other natural combustibles and how they contribute to fires. What his work has revealed, he said, is that in areas where major fires have already burned, there is little danger of new wildfires for years because the dry undergrowth has already been consumed. "It's a natural firebreak," he said.
What the software can do is tell researchers or fire officials how the undergrowth will react if it is thinned out, replaced with other species or left to grow unaltered, and then compare that data to past fire histories, he said. "This is giving land managers the ability to look ahead," he said.
Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Agricultural Extension in Berkeley, has been studying weather and wind patterns and their effects on wildfires in California. He and his team have created a "fire engine tool kit" website where officials and residents can use databases of historical fire data to analyze new fires and determine how they might behave. "Firefighters can use the tool kit to see what they're up against when fighting fires like this," Moritz said. The Web site is still evolving, but it's drawing interest from officials, he said.
Doug Stow, a geography professor at San Diego State University, is working on creating remote sensors to track the water content of plant life to determine its combustibility in the event of fire. The sensors take infrared satellite images and pick up reflected light from the vegetation. "When these levels go higher, that means the plant moisture levels are getting more dangerous," Stow said. In San Diego County, where some of the fiercest blazes are burning now, fire officials typically measure vegetation moisture in three or four places per acre; satellite images can provide much more detail, he said.
The Modis sensors (the name is derived from the term "moderate-resolution imaging spectroradiometer") that are capturing the infrared images are located on two NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, that are part of a NASA Earth observation system (download PDF).
Although a number of new technologies are under development, he said, that doesn't mean they can be quickly deployed, even after they're shown to work. "Mostly, local governments just don't have the money for new technology," Stow said. "In California, most money goes into [fire] suppression" rather than technology.
Copyright 2007 Computerworld Inc.