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California fire season looms; summit shows how technology can help

by Levi Sumagaysay, Bay Area News Group |

SACRAMENTO – Fresh off a record-breaking year of the largest, deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history, the state kicked off its first wildfire technology summit Wednesday.

Lawmakers, policymakers, scientists, fire officials, plus tech experts and companies from around the state, nation and beyond gathered at Sacramento State University in the wake of a couple of devastating wildfire seasons in the state, which killed 138 people in 2017 and 2018. On the agenda: how technology might help in forecasting, prediction and prevention of wildfires, plus ways to improve response, decision-making and communication with first responders and the public.

Preparing for the future requires understanding the causes of today’s wildfires and learning from the past, so the 650 attendees of the summit also heard from climate scientists and historians. Officials and others from San Diego shared lessons from the first mega fires in the state that happened in that region during the mid-2000s, and the changes that have been adopted since then.

“California is a harbinger of what’s to come,” said Ed Struzik, author of “Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future” and a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queens University in Canada.

He reminded the summit about some of the important effects of wildfires: changes in forests, degradation of water quality, impact on fish populations, possible reduction in visits to national parks, poor air quality.

“The magnitude, scale and scope of wildfires in the West is unreplicated,” said Jeff Johnson, chief executive of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. “The solutions will come from the West,” he added, and identified California as the leader of that push.

Technology can help in many ways.

Mary Glackin, vice president of Science and Forecast Operations at IBM, which was on the steering committee that helped the California Public Utilities Commission put on the summit, was scheduled to be a panelist Wednesday afternoon with some meteorologists and an official from the U.S. Forest Service about the potential of using technology — including machine learning and artificial intelligence — for wildfire forecasting. IBM, which is already in the business of predicting the impact of storms, is one of the companies studying detection and prediction of wildfires, she said.

“Our high-tech tools have paid off by providing insights and situational awareness,” said Caroline Winn, chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric, who said the data the tools — including mountaintop cameras — collect help the utility make day-to-day decisions, including when to turn off power when there’s high fire danger.

Communication is critical, too. Residents need to be alerted about dangers and evacuations, and firefighters need access to real-time data to help them do their jobs.

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said only 6 percent of the state’s residents rely on landline phones anymore. A majority of Californians rely on their mobile phones.

“Those fail,” Picker said.

Fellow panelist Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, agreed, saying that the state needs reliable, resilient cellphone networks.

The summit explored topics Thursday including risks posed by power lines, and what utilities can do to identify problems and solutions.

Besides IBM, the California Office of Emergency Services, Sacramento State University, UC San Diego were on the steering committee for the event.