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California Is Starting To Use Military Technology To Fight Fires

In November of 2018, an unprecedented wildfire season devastated communities across the state California. Fast-moving fires began near the Sierra Nevada Foothills and along the Los Angeles shoreline burning over 250,000 acres of land and killing over 84 people. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, devastating the towns of Paradise and Magalia. Shortly after, the Woolsey Fire broke out closer to Los Angeles, covering more than 95,000 acres across steep terrain, which made it difficult for firefighters to stifle the growing flames. 

After last years destruction, local officials in California are anticipating yet another brutal wildfire season in 2019. The state, as with much of the Western side of the United States, sees most precipitation in the Fall and Winter. According to the New York Times, climate change has prolonged the dry season, creating more dry vegetation and making the state more susceptible to fires. Population density also contributes as most of the fires have been human-caused. For example, the Carr fire in California began when a truck blew its tire and the rim scraped the pavement, sending sparks flying into brush. That's all it took. Both fire suppression, which creates more dry plant-life to burn, combined with high winds, which also dry out vegatation and move embers around, are also factors for starting wildfires. In order to tackle the rise in frequency and severity of these fires, safety managers are looking to create innovative safety plans. 

Related Article: How California's Disaster Communication Plan Failed Residents  During Deadly Wildfires

In June, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that California had secured the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Defense for the upcoming wildfire season, as per Tech Times. By collaborating with the Pentagon, first responders in California will have access to information from military satellites to spot brush fires on the ground. In addition, the National Guard will deploy unmanned drones to map out wildfires, look out for survivors, manage first response, and keep track of destroyed property. There will also be army and airforce monitoring satellite imagery to cue the California state fire agency faster once a wildfire has begun.

How California is Using Military Technology To Fight Fires 

California now has access to military technology to help fight against wildfires as the wildfire season approaches. Here is how they are making the most of advanced shelters, drone and satellite technology:

  • Drone Technology
    In the past, first responders have had access to drone technology in California, but on as an-needed basis. Moving forward, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan gave the National Guard in California blanket approval to use the Department of Defense’s fleet of unmanned drones for the upcoming wildfire season. The individual authorizations sometimes took days, and during an extreme weather emergency every minute counts. David Baldwin, who oversees the California branches of the airforce and army, assured state officials that the blanket authorization will allow the drones to be better integrated into a safety plan, according to Army Times. “Now they’re pretty much integrated into our standard operating procedure for response because they’re so useful both for fire mapping and for damage assessment,” he said.

    Drones are a versatile tool during a fire emergency, and can stay in the air for nearly 22 hours, versus only 5 for a standard aircraft. The devices provide sightlines through clouds, smoke, and darkness with radar, cameras, infrared visuals, and multispectral sensors.The unmanned aerial vehicles can also instantly link images to maps and relay information to fire departments as they make judgements on evacuation protocol and moving resources. By mapping the flames, drones enable fire managers to determine which homes and structures have been destroyed or damaged. Before this technology safety managers were required to drive through neighborhoods to assess damages. In the future the state hopes that the defense department will further cede authority over the drones to the National Guard, as delegating authority on the state level would further speed up response time.

  • Satellite Technology 
    In June, LA officials pleaded with the U.S. Air Force for access to missile warning satellites to assist in detecting wildfires. The satellites infrared sensors are designed to look for the signs of a flame in case of a missile launch, and provide automatic analysis of the data. Since a missile flame is similar to a wildland fire, satellites are able to detect forest and brush fires just as effectively. Infrared images from the satellites can find key hot spots within the fire system. This technology can be used as fires begin to spread, and help firefighters address the flames in the regions where response is most urgent.

  • Advanced Shelters
    Response teams in the state have been making efforts to make sure firefighters are kept safe during response as well. Firefighters are often faced with unpredictable conditions while in the field, and unfortunately portable foil tents have not proven effective in defending responders from a blaze. New portable shelters have a layer of foil as well as a shield of silica over a fiberglass scrim to protect from extreme heat. Thus far, the technology has provided a better safeguard against flames than previous models, and can help further mitigate risk for firefighters battling extreme wildfires. 

California Reevaluating Response Technology 

In 2018, officials in California was unable to sufficiently warn residents of fire risks, and the failure to leverage emergency notification system prevented residents from evacuating under dangerous conditions. Modern alert technologies - such as robocalls or digital alerts - were not utilized to warn residents in the path of dangerous fires throughout the state. The wildfires highlighted major inadequacies in the emergency warnings officials used, and pushed state officials to reevaluate the use of emergency technology in the state. The warnings officials did send only reached a small fraction of the population, and emergency agencies struggled to direct messages to the correct geographic areas. County officials, cable providers, and state and federal officials have been attempting to address the faulty system, and bring mass notification in California up to date

In addition to mass notification insufficiencies, California struggled to support residents with Access and Functional needs. Individuals with access and functional needs include those with disabilities, senior citizens, young children, people with limited English proficiency, or those without access to adequate transportation. During the 2017 fires in Napa County and Sonoma County, the average age of those who died was 79, according to the Los Angeles Times. The youngest victim was 57 and the oldest was 100 years old. A report detailing federally declared disasters between 2017 and 2018 found that governments failed to evacuate people living in nursing homes and other institutions, failed to communicate critical notifications in accessible formats, such as providing video captions or ASL, and failed to provide the appropriate medical equipment or care. 

A Must-Read: Overcoming the Challenges of Protecting Vulnerable Populations  During a Disaster

State and local governments across California must improve disaster planning for vulnerable individuals, including those with access and functional needs in emergency planning. One way to acheive this goal is by collaborating with community-based organizations or medical professionals working on the ground.

A vulnerable needs registry is also essential during a severe weather emergency, as this tool proven to help safety managers better understand the individual needs in their community and enable faster comunication during a disaster. The tool allows emergency managers to collect citizen-volunteered registry data for analysis, planning, or emergency response. Administrators can then send the right message to each individual based on their need or location during a wildfire, as well as dispatch the appropriate first response team to help the resident when necessary. The registry proves especially valuable during evacuations, which are critical to wildfire response. Safety managers are able to identify and locate residents with mobility limitations or transporation challenges and provide them with the resources needed to safely evacuate the affected area. 

Interested in learning more? 

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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