Calif. governor allocates $30M to fund wildfire-monitoring planes

The two Fire Integrated Real time Intelligence System planes can send real-time images, data and projections to firefighters and emergency managers


Eric Licas
The Orange County Register

BURBANK, Calif. — Planes capable of predicting the behavior of wildfires and beaming information directly to crews on the ground in real time have proven invaluable in major disasters across California. Now, they will become a permanent part of firefighters’ arsenals, after attracting millions of dollars in state funding, officials announced Tuesday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom will announce plans to allocate $30 million to the Fire Integrated Real time Intelligence System (FIRIS)  when he unveils California’s revised budget, according to officials from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

A Fire Integrated Real-time Intelligence System airplane was on display on the tarmac at Burbank Airport Tuesday. The state Office of Emergency Services, the L.A. city fire department and the Orange County Fire Authority held a media availability to demonstrate the airplane, which is equipped with high-def and infrared cameras. The plane can be sent anywhere in California and can send real-time images, information, and projections to first responders and emergency managers on the ground.
A Fire Integrated Real-time Intelligence System airplane was on display on the tarmac at Burbank Airport Tuesday. The state Office of Emergency Services, the L.A. city fire department and the Orange County Fire Authority held a media availability to demonstrate the airplane, which is equipped with high-def and infrared cameras. The plane can be sent anywhere in California and can send real-time images, information, and projections to first responders and emergency managers on the ground. (Photo/Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG/Tribune News Service)

The system was conceptualized about six years ago in conversations between General Atomics, a Department of Defense Contractor known for designing the predator drone, and Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.

He was the chief of the San Diego Fire Department at the time and had been asked to create a real-time aerial surveillance system for wildfires by the city’s then-mayor, Kevin Faulconer.

Fennessy continued working with General Atomics to develop FIRIS after becoming OCFA Chief. The concept garnered funding for a pilot program, which eventually led to the debut of the system’s first plane.

“What we’ve learned is … (it) has to be easy, it has to be quick, and it has to be real-time,” Fennessy said Tuesday during a news event at a privately owned airstrip in Burbank. “Any information 10 minutes late, 15 minutes late, 30 minutes late, it’s old information.”

In the past, crews mapping out the progress of fires were required to land and manually upload their data. That meant that firefighters’ plan of attack against a wildfire had often been based on conditions that may have already changed drastically.

The key components of the FIRIS system are two Beechcraft King 200 planes outfitted with state-of-the-art sensors. The technology gives crews the ability to detect heat and see in the dark and through thick plumes of smoke, even in the dark, Orange County Mission Commander Stan Kubota said.

Crews aboard the planes send live updates on a fire’s spread and intensity directly to the cellphones of firefighters on the ground. That allows those coordinating disaster responses to send teams where they are most needed sooner, hopefully before lives and structures are threatened.

“Historically, our strike teams were getting into these fires blind,” Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said Tuesday. “They didn’t know what they were getting into, and were listening to the news or maybe the radio. But now they can actually see what the fire is doing. From a safety standpoint, that’s huge for firefighters.”

The FIRIS system has also been critical in determining which communities need to be evacuated during recent wildfires in Southern California. And it has helped search for missing persons and was used to track the spread of a major oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach in 2021.

The FIRIS system’s two planes cover the entire state, and had each cost between $14 million and $16 million annually to operate, according to Fennessy’s estimate. Both spend hundreds of hours in flight each year, and may see even more use as the program expands and first responders discover more ways to take advantage of them.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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