Leveraging Technology and Partnering to Protect Our Communities from Wildfire

By San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Brian Fennessy

History has demonstrated over and over that there is no bigger threat to life and property than wildland fire in San Diego County. While it’s not possible to eliminate that threat, we can be ready the next time the Santa Ana winds blow, the temperatures rise and the fire risk increases.

A lot has been accomplished over the past decade. We are far better prepared to fight the next wildfire than at any time in our history. Not just in the City of San Diego, but countywide. We have in place the people, the equipment, the relationships, the technology and the aircraft we need.

I believe strongly, that as a region, we are as prepared as we can be. But that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. We need to be vigilant. We need to continue to work together – residents, fire departments, cities, the county, state and private companies – to prepare and keep our region safe.

One way we can do that is through ongoing investments in technology that firefighters can use to get real-time, on-the-ground information about a fire so they can make informed decisions.

One such innovation is a computer model created by SDG&E that analyzes things like wind, temperature, humidity, vegetation and topography to paint a picture that firefighters can use to accurately predict where a wildfire is spreading. This information is critical so fire incident commanders know where to deploy resources and determine what neighborhoods need to be evacuated.

Technological advancements have also taken to the sky. The City and General Atomics recently partnered on a project to use aircraft outfitted with sensors that gather critical information on fire behavior and location and can act as a communications tower in the sky. With this technology, we can see firefighters at the bottom of a canyon, at night, through smoke, swinging tools from a height of 17,000 feet. It is battlefield technology we are using to fight fires.

As we all know, weather is the primary driver of a wildfire in San Diego County. When we have powerful winds, coupled with very low humidity levels, hot temperatures and lots of dead vegetation from years of drought, it’s a recipe for another big wildfire. While we can’t control the weather, we can better understand it.

To that end, SDG&E has created the nation’s largest privately-owned weather network that is available around-the-clock to fire departments, emergency services and the public. Information compiled by SDG&E meteorologists is used to create a daily Fire Potential Index that we utilize to determine when and where to position additional firefighters, engines and aircraft. The weather system also includes more than 100 cameras that are monitored daily to watch for severe weather and the spread of wildfire.

We are using technology to be smarter on the ground. But these advancements would not have been possible without the relationships forged between local governments, the county, Cal Fire, fire services, law enforcement, non-profits and private companies. We are truly in this together.

Illustrating this is an agreement forged among fire chiefs from departments around San Diego County to link communications and command centers so that we can provide a multi-agency response to an emergency regardless of borders. That means the firefighters closest to the emergency are the ones who respond irrespective of what agency they are with.

The key to keeping a fire small is a rapid response. San Diego County is the cul-de-sac of California. By the time the winds start blowing here, resources in the state are busy responding to fires elsewhere. That’s why we’ve also partnered with the military to provide aircraft in times of need.

These partnerships extend beyond government, they extend to all residents of San Diego County too. Everyone needs to prepare before the next wildland fire. This includes creating defensible space by clearing brush away from your home, using fire-resistant landscaping and hardening your home with fire-safe construction methods. To help residents prepare, we’ve partnered with the International Association of Fire Chiefs to create the Ready, Set, Go fire action guide. More helpful information is also available on SDG&E’s emergency preparedness webpage.

As a region, we are more prepared than at any time in our history to prevent and protect against our greatest threat – wildfire. Through the partnerships we’ve forged, through the ongoing use of new and innovative technologies, and through good old-fashioned fire readiness we can be even more prepared. All of us have a role to play in keeping our communities safe.