L.A. County advised to consider early detection technology for wildland fires
Such technology could include ground-based cameras that could be installed in forests and analyzed by computers to detect smoke or flames and sound an alarm to a fire dispatcher, according to a report from the Quality and Productivity Commission, whose members are appointed by William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive.
Several prototype systems are being developed. UC San Diego researchers are working with Sony Corp. on a prototype of a high-resolution solar-powered camera that could be installed on mountaintop towers, giving viewers a 360-degree view of forestland.
Separately, a 360-degree camera has been installed in Tahoe City, Calif., and connected to the Internet for public viewing under a program dubbed “Forest Guard.”
“The pictures enable citizen firewatchers to quickly raise an alarm if a fire is seen,” according to the report.
The report noted that L.A. County already has towers in forestland areas equipped with cameras, which are designed for security purposes.
“Using these existing cameras could provide a low-cost way to explore early fire detection in a selected part of the county,” the report said.
Commissioners said another promising option would be to use a military satellite to detect missile launches worldwide.
“Since a missile flame has characteristics similar to a wildland fire, the system can readily detect fires,” the report said. The detection system was used in the early 1990s, but lack of federal funding halted further use of it.
The system would be most effective in rural areas of the county. In urban areas, cellphone users alert fire officials faster than a satellite would, the report said.
The report calls for testing of the satellite and ground-based camera systems for the summer fire season.
Commissioners also called on the county to evaluate a system that would electronically track the locations of fire engines to a dispatch computer system -- making it easier to send the closest available engine to the scene of a fire.
The recommendations came nine months after the death of two Los Angeles County firefighters who were trying to protect a fire suppression camp headquarters during the massive Station blaze last summer.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said the fire demonstrated the need to create an automated early detection system and a swift response system to extinguish wildfires soon after they ignite.
Supervisors were also encouraged to create a task force for all fire agencies operating in L.A. County to hammer out a single agreement on how to fight wildfires.
“Specific agencies may have rules tailored for their mission that may not be beneficial for other agencies. For example, the Forest Service does not allow aerial suppression activities at night, whereas [the Los Angeles County Fire Department] will engage a fire at night using water-dropping helicopters,” the report said.
Antonovich has been critical of the U.S. Forest Service for not asking county firefighters to help extinguish the Station fire shortly after it broke out. The U.S. Forest Service has a decades-old policy that bars its firefighting aircraft from flying night missions, a prohibition that some say allowed the Station fire to rage out of control; in contrast, Los Angeles city and county firefighters routinely perform night missions.
The Times has reported that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the flames and that a heavy air assault did not resume until several hours after sunup on the second day, after the blaze got away from ground crews.
-- Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration
Photo: Station Fire (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)