Three Steps to Drive California’s Wildfire Mitigation Efforts Forward, Now
Combined, 2017 and 2018 marked the most devastating wildfire seasons in California history. With more than 17,660 fires burning roughly 2 million acres and taking more than 150 lives, the unprecedented scale and scope of these catastrophic disasters indicate that larger swaths of California are at risk than previously understood.
Consequently, a lot is going on right now regarding wildfire prevention in the state of California at a community, university, state, and regulatory level. Before we talk about needed action, let’s review (high-level) some of the most recent happenings.
At the Capitol
On February 22, 2019, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) issued a formal 45-day Report to Governor Gavin Newsom in response to Executive Order N-05–19, systematically identifying “high priority fuels reduction projects and other measures to immediately begin to protect over 200 of California’s most wildfire-vulnerable communities and put the state on a path toward long-term wildfire prevention and forest health.” Consequently, on March 22nd, the Governor declared a state wildfire emergency in California to accelerate statewide mitigation efforts. Outlined in his official executive order, Newsom waived environmental regulations to accelerate local forest management projects aimed at protecting the report’s identified high-risk communities.
Simultaneously, Newsom announced the release of “the next phase of an effort to modernize the way the state contracts for goods and technology systems, to prepare for and assist during disasters”, a.k.a. the “Request for Innovative Ideas (RFI2) Wildfire Management”. The RFI2 — issued in partnership with CAL FIRE, the Department of General Services (DGS), and the California Department of Technology (CDT) — specifically requests solicitation of “Innovative Ideas” and “Sustainable Solutions” for wildfire detection, prediction, and management. While the first round of proposals are due on Friday, April 26th, the associated and available funding has yet to be disclosed.
Finally, to wrap up his Friday announcement trio, the Governor launched a $50 million California for All Emergency Preparedness Campaign.
The campaign will provide:
· $24.25 million in grants to community-based organizations across the state to prepare residents for natural disasters through education and resources designed to bolster resiliency.
· $12.6 million to support community efforts to build resiliency and respond to disasters by dispatching expert disaster teams to key regions and expanding citizen emergency response teams (CERT).
· $13.15 million to assist community groups in the development of a linguistically and culturally appropriate public awareness and outreach campaign, directed specifically at the most vulnerable California communities
Within Industry and University
Closely preceding Newsom’s declaration, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Sacramento State, IBM, and UC San Diego hosted the state’s first ever Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit at Sacramento State University March 20th and 21st. Drawing roughly 650 lawmakers, policymakers, scientists, fire officials, tech experts, private companies, and utilities, the summit’s goal was to “examine new approaches to preventing, combatting, and mitigating wildfires.” Aside from featured government entities from the CPUC, Cal OES, CAL FIRE, etc., and academics from a wide range of universities, the event showcased new fire systems such as WIFIRE and Technosylva, technologies and active collaborations such as ALERTWildfire, CENIC, and GeoLinks, and numerous case studies from local, state, and national utility companies. Ultimately, with more than 30 presentations, it was clear that there is certainly no technological deficit in the wildfire arena, just a potential lack of widespread collaboration, funding, and implementation.
To wrap things up, I wanted to point out a few recent headlines worth noting.
California had nation’s worst fire season in 2018 | California suffered the worst wildfire devastation in the country last year, according to a new federal report.
What caused the Thomas Fire? Report reveals what sparked one of California’s largest wildfires | Power lines owned by Southern California Edison sparked the Thomas Fire, according to a report released Wednesday, March 13, 2019, by the Ventura County Fire Department.
Wildfire risk in California no longer coupled to winter precipitation | Wet winters no longer predict possible relief from severe wildfires for California, according to a new study from an international team that includes a University of Arizona scientist. | Why it matters? Rain isn’t the solution.
GeoLinks Installs 88 High-Tech Cameras in Southern and Northern California to Provide Critical Insight in High Risk Fire Areas | In collaboration with ALERTWildfire, UC San Diego, University of Nevada Reno, CENIC, SCE and PG&E, in three months GeoLinks has installed 88 cameras to improve confirmation and response efforts in combatting California wildfires. | Why it matters? The troops are rallying, so to say, the project is developing rapidly, and pending proper funding, collaborations are in place to actually make a significant difference. 88 cameras installed in three months is more deployed in the state of California than in the past 5 years combined.
What’s Not Being Talked About, Enough
So, now that we’ve reviewed what is being talked about, I’d like to address what is not being talked about, enough.
Foundational State Infrastructure
We have access to proven systems that work. As outlined in an article published in November, 2018 on Govtech.com, “ALERTWildfire, the infrared camera network, is slowly being implemented in California’s mountainous high-hazard areas and has shown that it can help knock down a fire before it devastates a community.” Fast forward, and ALERTWildfire realized they lacked resources to bring this project to scale. Thus, they partnered with GeoLinks, the largest fixed wireless network builder and operator in the state, and CENIC — a nonprofit organization that operates the California Research and Education Network (CalREN — a high-capacity computer network with more than 8,000 miles of optical fiber) to ramp up efforts. The result? As previously noted, more fire cameras installed across the state in three-months than in the previous five-years combined. This project brought to light the state’s immediate need for redundant and scalable broadband infrastructure and public-private collaboration to deploy technologies statewide.
While the cameras make consistent headlines, the need to build out and expand basic infrastructure to support all current and future technology-based public safety solutions and data transfer is too commonly overlooked. As it stands, the state of California has a digital divide that has left many of its rural communities unconnected to broadband Internet access. Past that, the state still has ample territory subject to cellular dead zones disabling the rapid dispersion of electronic public warning systems. California needs to invest in building out a ubiquitous mesh and redundant network NOW before they realize any new innovative “fire-fighting gadgets” are roadblocked by lack of connectivity and transport.
This one is simple, and it is mentioned occasionally, but it needs to be resolved, now. For example, while fire cameras are vital, who’s going to monitor them? If we see another Carr, Thomas, or Paradise fire, how do we physically save more lives? By equipping our state with not just the best tools but also a full rotational infantry of first responders and other emergency personnel.
Three Actions to Take Now:
Talking is talking, and staying informed is great, but action is paramount. And since California’s multipronged approach can be overwhelming, these are the FIRST three things the state needs to act on, now.
1. Secure and Distribute Funding
This is underway but needs to be accelerated and distributed to entities with proven ability and vital collaborations already in place to actually make a difference.
2. Build and Deploy Capable Infrastructure
We need to build infrastructure to close the state’s broadband and communication gaps. Otherwise, wildfire prevention technology, modeling, and warning systems become severely handicapped, if not useless altogether.
3. Hire More Bodies
In 2018 NPR published, “Understaffed And Overworked: Firefighters Exhausted By Severe California Fires”; and guess what, it’s true. From CAL FIRE, to the USFS, to local first responders, we need more bodies.