With summer heating up and the potential for deadly blazes rising, state and federal agencies are doing more to work together in hopes of avoiding another catastrophic wildfire season.
The California National Guard (CNG), the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) are among state and federal agencies collaborating to aggregate more data; send more resources aloft; and field a more comprehensive response to wildland conflagrations.
“I really think that overall, I would say just the collaboration and the focus has improved. Everyone’s just trying to ensure we don’t have another Camp Fire,” Maj. Megan Stromberg, California Air National Guard lead for incident awareness and assessment related to disaster response, told Techwire. Among the takeaways:
• CNG has established an around-the-clock wildfire watch desk through year’s end and may continue it in 2020. Designed to be similar to an analyst cell, it brings together remote sensing, incident awareness and assessment data from CNG, the National Guard Bureau and the Civil Applications Committee, an inter-agency committee that supports federal civil agencies by providing them access to national systems data. One goal for the desk, which is located in Sacramento near CalOES, is to bring in data including satellite remote sensing information earlier, in the initial attack phase of wildfires.
During the 2018 Camp Fire, which began around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite data wasn’t available until late morning, Stromberg said, noting that new GOES-17 satellite data is now coming online and should soon be capable of being refreshed every 10 minutes.
• Black Hawk helicopters capable of fighting wildfires at night will join Cal Fire’s aerial fleet starting later this summer. Over the next four years, the agency will receive 12 new Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawks, Scott McLean, Cal Fire spokesperson, told Techwire. They’ll replace older Bell Huey helicopters whose initial design dates to the Vietnam War era. All will be new and adapted for firefighting, with tanks that carry roughly 1,000 gallons of specially treated water; and some will be available to fly at night. The first Black Hawk should arrive in late July or early August, with subsequent arrivals every three to four months through 2020 or 2021. Their exact cost to the state is unclear; however, Cal Fire will also receive seven C-130 aircraft from the military at no upfront cost, to replace older aircraft. The state will pay for maintenance and modifying the C-130s to fight fires.
“The helicopters are definitely precise in where their drops are compared to a tanker. There’s a lot of good news, the past couple years, for the department, being able to heighten our prevention aspect, being able to do our fuel reduction project, and bolstering the amount of aircraft needed for replacement,” McLean said, referring to the elimination of organic leaf litter, dead trees and other fire “fuel” in forests. If needed, CNG also has Black Hawk helicopters ready to assist the state.
• Cal OES, which “tasks” CNG with wildfire fighting duties, following a request for assistance from an agency like Cal Fire, has received “blanket permission” through year’s end to field unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to fight fires. Previously, the state had to seek federal approval each time it wanted to deploy drones, which were first used in 2013 on the Rim Fire. Not having to devote extra hours to seeking approval means that CNG MQ-9, RC-26 and RQ-7 drones can be more quickly deployed and stay longer in the air — which will enable more extensive perimeter mapping, along with hot spot identification and threat assessment. Stromberg said the extensive permission may demonstrate confidence in CNG’s ability to deploy UAVs like the MQ-9 “safely and legally.” But she emphasized ongoing adjutant general-level approval and oversight is important because CNG continues to need practice with the drones outside of fire season; and because drones have significant similarities to manned aircraft in terms of sensors, capabilities and response time frames.
• CNG is also hoping to enhance its wildfire perimeter and damage assessments by utilizing the MQ-9’s radar capability in conjunction with infrared vision; and by leveraging artificial intelligence in collaboration with the federal Defense Innovation Unit, which partners with the private sector to use technology in solving defense-related problems.