The Afternoon News with Kitty O'Neal

The Afternoon News with Kitty O'Neal

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Tools California Could Use to Better Prevent and Fight Wildfires

Listen: Independent Institute Senior Fellow Lawrence J. McQuillan, Ph.D., has some fascinating hi-tech suggestions for improved wildfire safety.

Here are some of the tools that can be used to prevent and fight wildfires:

Internet of Things-Connected Sensors

Low-powered Internet of Things (IoT) connected sensors gather data from remote areas that are potential wildfire hotspots. Sensors can detect and measure the level of CO2 and check for unseasonably high temperatures, indicating the possible presence of fires in the area.

Artificial Intelligence 

AI technology is helping to predict and contain wildfires. For example, a team at UC Berkeley is working on a project called FUEGO, the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit. FUEGO is an elaborate system used to detect wildfires as early as possible. The technology also alerts and dispatches firefighters to the location of a fire and boasts an accuracy of about 95 percent.

Firefighting Robots 

Thermite is a new robot that pumps a minimum of 1,250 gallons of water per minute, and is made of aircraft-grade aluminum and steel, which allows it to withstand high temperatures so it can be deployed in areas too hazardous for humans. It’s best described as a small tank, and its primary mission is to assist, rather than replace, firefighters by helping to suppress a fire, assess a situation, search for survivors, or clear debris. 

Light Detection and Ranging 

LiDAR is a remote sensing method that generates precise, three-dimensional information about the composition of the fuel bed. LiDAR equipment has been used successfully on planes and helicopters to determine the amount and composition of flammable material, whether it is dead trees, brush, or prairie grass.


Unmanned drones fitted with regular cameras and infrared cameras are especially useful to detect fires and to supply incident management teams during fires with real-time data regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat intensity, even through thick canopies or heavy smoke. Drones can fly into areas that manned aircraft cannot, especially at night when fires tend to be easier to fight because winds subside and humidity increases. 


Satellites can also play an important role in early detection of wildfires. A sensor was installed on NASA’s AQUA and TERRA satellites to detect heat sources. These two satellites view the entire Earth every one to two days. The sensor was the first to spot the Noatak, Alaska, wildfire in 2002. 

New Fire Retardants

A new gel retardant called Strong Water is a 100 percent non-toxic, water-enhancing fire-block gel that allows fire agencies to do more with less. It sticks to surfaces for up to eight hours and can be used on the sides of structures. Strong Water was used to coat 20 of 128 homes in the West Cajon Valley in San Bernardino County during the 2016 Blue Cut fire. The blaze destroyed 108 homes, but the 20 covered in Strong Water stood without a char mark.

Virtual Reality Simulations

A recent report showed that the "U.S. Forest Service is employing VR to train smokejumpers—wildland firefighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires—in a safe environment. The VR simulators create 3D representations of the fire scenario, with trainers able to change physical characteristics like wind direction and speed, to prepare smokejumpers for real life engagements in truly dangerous conditions.”

Fixed-Wing Air Tanker 

During the Camp Fire in November 2018, California received from Colorado the privately owned Global SuperTanker, a modified Boeing 747 that can carry 19,200 gallons of water, fire retardant, or suppressant, compared to 1,200 gallons by a normal-sized air tanker. Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape has repeatedly delayed deployment of the Global SuperTanker in California, as the company had to wait for approvals from Cal Fire and the Forest Service. 

Exterior Fire Sprinklers

During wildfires, most homes ignite from embers, not direct contact with flames. Studies have shown that exterior sprinklers increase the odds of a successful defense of structures from the roof on down. Sprinklers also release moisture in the air that lowers the ambient air temperature and increases the humidity level, which can deflect advancing wildfires.

Nonflammable roofing and siding, and ember-resistant attic vents and rain gutters

In 2008, the state’s building codes were changed to require such fire resiliency products for homes built in risky areas. McClatchy’s analysis of the recent Camp fire found that 51 percent of homes built after 2008 were undamaged, while only 18 percent of pre-2008 homes were undamaged. 

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