Inside The New Tech Helping LA Firefighters Decide Who And When To Evacuate

Chief Ralph Terrazas shows an early model of the new fire technology — the blue line is the fire perimeter of the fire that the plane mapped. (Emily Elena Dugdale / LAist)

By Emily Elena Dugdale and Brian Frank

Ever wonder how fire agencies decide who and when to evacuate?

It's not a decision made on a hunch. It requires making sense of huge amounts of real-time data and intelligence, and getting it wrong or late can have tragic consequences.

Not than long ago, fatalities in California's wildfires were very rare. But the rapidly accelerating pace and size of fires in the state has taken a heavy toll. Last year's Camp Fire left more than 80 people dead and all but wiped out the town of Paradise. The Tubbs Fire, which ravaged wine country in 2017, resulted in more than 20 deaths. And the Woolsey Fire destroyed more than 1,600 homes in Ventura County last fall, leaving three people dead in its wake.

To help minimize this loss of life and property, the Los Angeles Fire Department and other agencies use cutting-edge technology to model and predict what a fire's going to do next and use that information to figure out who needs to evacuate.

When a brush fire erupts in the city, LAFD:

  • Puts up planes packed with infrared cameras and other sensors to map the perimeter
  • Relies on a supercomputer to predict where the fire might spread next
  • Flies drones to help pinpoint hot spots
An image showing the Getty Fire perimeter on Monday morning, Oct. 28, 2019, was captured by a FIRIS turboprop plane. (Courtesy of LAFD)

"We're always looking for innovative ways to get better intelligence, and it all comes down to enhanced situational awareness," said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas. "That's what we train our firefighters: when you're on the fire ground, you got to be aware of what's going on to make good decisions."

Now fire officials are hoping to take a major step forward in firefighting by tying all those elements together. The goal is to increase the accuracy and speed of the predictive modeling.

That's why the LAFD is part of a pilot project known as FIRIS, or Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System.

WHAT IS FIRIS?

Lord of the Rings fans, think "one ring to rule them all."

FIRIS is the name of the system that connects the different technologies. The pilot project launched in September with $4.5 million in state funding, and it has been available for use by the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and San Diego. LAFD was invited to take part by the Orange County Fire Authority.

The system can generate real-time fire perimeter maps within five minutes of an aircraft arriving on scene, according to the OCFA.

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?

When a 911 call comes in reporting a brush fire, firefighters and helicopters are dispatched. WIFIRE, a supercomputer based at the University of California, San Diego, then crunches data from weather stations, topography, and models of the fuels — or the vegetation that could burn. Within minutes, the computer spits out a projection of where the fire is most likely to spread.

About 30 minutes after the initial response, Terrazas said, they launch dedicated turboprop planes equipped with special sensors that can provide high-definition video and detect hot spots with infrared. The planes get a high-level overview by flying above the water-dropping helicopters. Here's a look at video returned on the recent Palisades Fire:

And here's video on the Tick Fire:

The data collected by the planes helps to confirm or correct the WIFIRE projections.

The data is transmitted to a central hub at the Southern California Wildfire Fusion Center. From there, information is quickly disseminated to the fire chief, the command post, elected officials, and the general public. The LAFD can then direct residents to its website, where they can find the evacuation maps that were informed by all this data.

Every couple hours, Terrazas said, the models are run again to ensure the maps and evacuation zones are still accurate, and in cases like the Getty Fire on Monday, planes can be sent up to three or four times a day to further validate their information.

Crew on a specially equipped plane map the perimeter of a fire in real time as part of FIRIS. (Source: Raw footage from Orange County Fire Authority)

Most of the tech involved has been in use for years. What's new is the way it ties together — and the fact that it's being deployed on the initial attack. In the past, it could sometimes take several hours or even a day before planes would be deployed to help map the perimeter and acres burned, Terrazas said.

Now they have that data much sooner and can even pull Census data to see how many houses will be affected, which law enforcement can use to assist with evacuations.

GAME CHANGER?

A firefighters sprays water on a home as firefighters battle the Getty Fire in Brentwood on Monday. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

WIFIRE predicts where the fire will spread and how large it will become within the next six hours if it is allowed to burn unsuppressed.

Before WIFIRE, chiefs were assigned the task of pulling out a map and running their own calculations, then outlining the appropriate areas on the map. The results were slower and often inconsistent because of the varying skill levels of the personnel involved, and because a lot of the information was coming from people making estimates on the ground, Terrazas said.

"When you were assigned this task at a working brush fire, it's difficult because of all the chaos, the smoke the sirens, the houses on fire," Terrazas said.

Now it's a supercomputer doing the math, and trained staff operating the system at the dispatch center.

Intterra, the company behind FIRIS, hopes the pilot project will prove the system's worth by increasing the accuracy of maps, making more effective predictions, improving communication, and resulting in greater cost efficiency, among other things.

Intterra says its system will eventually be able to help predict fires before they happen, based on past and present weather conditions, forecasts and vegetation levels.