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Outsmarting Wildfires
Dolores Davies | Crest Road

UCSD WIFIRE Firemap showing the many cameras and weather stations in place throughout San Diego to detect fires and weather conditions. Screenshot by Dolores Davies.
Click to enlarge.

While fire surveillance drones and virtual reality simulators have yet to be added to the firefighter’s arsenal, local residents should find comfort in the fact that the San Diego region is ahead of the curve when it comes to harnessing technology to predict where wildfires might start and prevent those that start from growing.
Although Santa Ana winds and wildfires have long been a part of the California landscape, it wasn’t until the 1990s, according to San Diego’s fire chief, Brian Fennesy, that wildfires became “mega fires.” San Diegans have experienced some of the state’s largest fires ever— in 2003 with the Cedar Fire, which burned more than 273,000 acres and killed 15 people, and then in 2007 with the Witch Creek-Guejito fires (which subsequently merged with other fires) which burned 247,800 acres and caused two fatalities.

The Witch Creek-Guejito fires required some 500,000 people to evacuate, including many Del Mar residents. After investigators determined that the fires were started by SDG&E power lines, the utility agreed to pay more than $2 billion in settlements. In addition, the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) rejected SDG&E’s proposal to pass on $379 million in fire costs to ratepayers—a big wake-up call for Sempra Energy (SDG&E’s parent company) and its shareholders.

Since then, SDG&E claims to have invested about $1billion in fire prevention and safety measures, including a network of 144 weather stations installed at high-risk locations throughout the region. SDG&E has a team of meteorologists and fire experts who monitor key variables—such as wind speed, humidity levels, and temperatures—from the weather stations in real time. This data is shared with CalFire, local fire departments, and other community partners so that fire risks can be assessed and acted upon.

SDG&E also collaborates with a team of UC San Diego computer scientists and engineers on WIFIRE, an integrated high-speed computer network used for analyzing and predicting wildfire behavior. WIFIRE allows decision makers to monitor, analyze, and predict wildfire conditions and activity in real time, so that first responders can be notified as soon as possible. UCSD WIFIRE collaborators also developed Firemap, a web-based tool that enables community partners such as CALFire, the U.S. Forest Service, and local and regional fire departments to conduct data-driven analyses of fire scenarios as well as real-time fire forecasting. Firemap is accessible by the public, and provides access to information on past fires and past and current weather conditions, as well as weather forecasts, satellite detection, and camera images. This includes high-visibility, high-resolution cameras—Alert SDG&E Cameras—situated in remote mountaintop and other San Diego backcountry locations. The Alert SDG&E Cameras, which members of the public can access, help to increase early wildfire detection and give residents the ability to monitor conditions within their community. For more information visit: www.wifire.ucsd.edu and www.alertwildfire.org/



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