This article originally appeared in the IAFC iCHIEFs summer 2021 issue. Read the full issue here.
By Brian Fennessy
Wildland fire represents the greatest risk to life and property in California. The need to gather and disseminate real-time wildland fire information at the earliest point allows for quicker decision-making and increased likelihood of fires being suppressed faster.
Imagine that it is a typical late summer day in California. Temperatures are warm and both forest and chaparral fuels are at or near record dry fuel moisture. Winds are light, but fire weather forecasters and predictive services staff expect wind velocity to increase and surface out of the northeast. Relative humidity is also expected to drop. These weather conditions are expected to remain for the next 48 to 72 hours. Whether a municipal, volunteer, or wildland firefighter in the West, these are the conditions we have grown accustomed to expecting earlier and extending later each year due to the effect of climate change. The “fire season’ is now longer than ever before in recent history.
Early that afternoon, a wildland fire is reported in Southern California. The fire is nearly 200 miles from the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) base, located at the Joint Forces Training Base – Los Alamitos, in north Orange County. The University of California San Diego (UCSD) Workflows Integrating Collaborative Hazard Sciences (WIFIRE) Lab staff has received the fire location and the UCSD supercomputer has instantly sent a wildfire spread model to the Southern California Fusion Center located at the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Communications Center.
Within seconds, the LAFD Fusion Center sends the location and initial wildland fire spread model (without suppression action) to the desktops, tablets, and smartphones of hundreds of firefighters, emergency managers, air tanker pilots, and policymakers. Within seconds of the fire being reported, the three questions everyone from firefighters to citizens want to know have been answered:
- Where is the fire?
- How big is the fire?
- Where is the fire going?
All three questions are answered within seconds of being reported. The initial image must be simple to interpret and not so busy that it takes more than a glance to understand the information. As we like to say, it must be like reading a book authored by Dr. Seuss. It doesn’t need many words to be understood, just a glance to have a good situation awareness. Most of the time, the initial image on my smartphone is that of a map showing fire spread in 30-minute increments.
The table in one corner of the image provides, in 30-minute increments, the number of property and lives in the path of the fire. In another corner is a mountaintop camera photo of the fire showing the levels of flame and smoke. From just a glance at the photo, it’s easy to see the fire is wind-driven and building in intensity. The initial image layer can also be applied to a variety of map layers. This particular image shows the land status (direct protection area), which is extremely useful for the agencies that will be responsible for managing the incident. In short, all three of the questions have been answered by one picture.
In the meantime, the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) Emergency Command Center (ECC) has received the location and initial wildland fire spread model (without suppression action) from the LAFD Fusion Center. The on-duty FIRIS aircrew(s) have also received the information on their smartphones. The FIRIS-crew-staffed King Air 250 is on its departure roll down the runway with a 22-minute estimated time to arrival (ETA) to the fire. The aircraft arrives quickly and establishes an operating altitude of 15,000 feet, which is well above any temporary flight restriction or the fire traffic area.
Within minutes, Intel 24 has provided a real-time fire perimeter and is sending live stream color and infrared video to desktops, tablets and smartphones. The information is also being warehoused and is accessible from the program’s common operating picture contract provider. It’s not long before the OCFA ECC has contacted Intel 24 and advised of a train derailment in a remote area of the Mojave Desert. The real-time wildland fire information has been shared with the firefighters on the gorund, the agency command center and the CAL OES State Operations Center. FIRIS Intel 24 departs for the new incident.
Both OCFA FIRIS King Air 250 fixed-wing aircrafts are equipped with a variety of sophisticated sensor equipment that is operated by skilled and experienced sensor operators. The pilots also have considerable experience with flying manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The Air Tactical Group Supervisors (ATGS) are the most experienced in the industry having retired from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management, CAL FIRE, and local government. Due to the high number of USFS ATGS vacancies, the FIRIS ATGS’s support the USFS by staffing the air tactical aircraft that the USFS is unable to staff. The FIRIS aircraft are operated on a 24-hour/7-day basis and respond from bases in Los Alamitos and Sacramento.
The FIRIS program proof of concept began in 2016 in partnership with Department of Defense (DoD) contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA). This began a nearly three-year relationship with GA. GA manufactures various models of military unmanned aircraft systems, most notably the Predator model(s). Former military special operators employed by GA shared that, while not well known, manned ISR platforms are as common in war theatre as unmanned aerial platforms. Both manned and unmanned have their unique value. One value of a manned ISR platform is the ability to adjust quickly based onboard human input; the same has proven true for civilian ISR applications, such as the FIRIS program.
In 2017, and during the early stage of FIRIS program development, the UCSD WIFIRE Lab was invited to make a presentation on FIRIS program development. It was quickly realized that the WIFIRE fire spread modeling would be continuous as long as an ISR platform camera was pointed on wildland fire. In December 2017, GA (with WIFIRE capability) responded to a Santa Ana wind-driven wildland fire (Lilac Fire) in North San Diego County. The GA ISR platform provided real time high-definition color video and infrared heat sensing video of WIFIRE fire spread modeling. Dozens of fire spread models were completed over the first 36 hours of the fire. Each provided demonstrably accurate and thus validated WIFIRE fire spread modeling.
In 2018, CAL FIRE, the California National Guard, Cal OES, the USFS, the FIRESCOPE Board of Directors, and many other subgroups of the agencies mentioned earlier received in-person briefings and presentations.
In early 2019, OCFA met with California state legislators and committees to share the immediate availability of real time information; further, that this information should be available as early into a wildland fire start as possible. In spring 2019, and as a result of the visits with legislators in Sacramento, the OCFA was notified that it was successful in securing $4.5 million for the 150-day FIRIS pilot program.
The 2019 FIRIS pilot program demonstrated that the integration of intelligence information and event prediction during initial resonse is as important as rapid and direct concentration of ground fire resources and aerial fire supression. The 2019 pilot program was so successful that Cal OES, through provisionary language to support and enhance local government mutual aid, provided funding to support two FIRIS platforms in 2020. The 2020 program focus is all-hazard planning, response, and recovery, no longer just wildland fire response.
The 2020 FIRIS 2.0 Program provides a crucial link between the dynamic, real-time intelligence needs of initial resopnse and enhanced situational awareness required by state and regional agencies to support the transition into extended attack. Implementing the FIRIS 2.0 Program has had a significant impact on combatting the effects of wildfire and other all-risk emergency incidents in California, while serving as a 24/7 pathway statewide for intelligent fusion and situational awareness.
The ISR fixed-wing platforms are managed, administred, and operated by OCFA on behalf of Cal OES, in support of the California Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid System. The FIRIS program assists with coordination and utilization of the resource between all requesting cooperators of the California Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid System.
About the author
Brian Fennessy became Fire Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority on April 16, 2018. Chief Fennessy has enjoyed a diversity of executive leadership and management experiences in both the wildland fire and metropolitcan fire service communities. He believes that Mission-Driven Culture (MDC) is the future of the fire service and has presented on this topic at a variety of local, state, and national venues.