LOS ANGELES, July 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Last summer, as Will Harling captained a fire engine trying to control a wildfire that had burst out of northern California's Klamath National Forest, overrun a firebreak and raced towards his hometown, he got a frustrating email. It was a statistical analysis from Oregon State University forestry researcher Chris Dunn, predicting that the spot where firefighters had built the firebreak, on top of a ridge a few miles out of town, had only a 10% chance of stopping the blaze. "They had spent so many resources building that useless break," said Harling, who directs the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, and works as a wildland firefighter for the local Karuk Tribe. "The index showed it had no chance," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. The Suppression Difficulty Index (SDI) is one of a number of analytical tools Dunn and other firefighting technology experts are building to bring the latest in machine learning, big data and forecasting to the world of firefighting.
This year, wildfires in California alone have burned more than 3.8 million acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, which has been leading many firefighting efforts in the state. Since mid-August, at least 29 people have died. And wildfires continue to burn. This week, the Glass Fire in California's wine country prompted mandatory evacuation orders for Calistoga, a city of more than 5,200. Fire prediction tools are helping officials in the area and across the state gain greater visibility into how big a fire might get and where it might be headed, said Geoff Marshall, a division chief in Cal Fire's Predictive Services program.
For months now, plans have been made and remade for how best to respond to wildfires within the pandemic. The effort has been herculean: national plans, regional plans, unit plans, down to the individual fire crew. It is a reflection of the very best attributes of this workforce's skill set. But a key element of the U.S. wildfire service's plan to fight fires in the midst of the pandemic could end up injecting even more uncertainty and risk into the equation. Distilled down, the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are merely variations of interpersonal isolation.
In new plans that offer a national reimagining of how to fight wildfires amid the risk of the coronavirus spreading through crews, it's not clear how officials will get the testing and equipment needed to keep firefighters safe in what's expected to be a difficult fire season. A U.S. group instead put together broad guidelines to consider when sending crews to blazes, with agencies and firefighting groups in different parts of the country able to tailor them to fit their needs. The wildfire season has largely begun, and states in the American West that have suffered catastrophic blazes in recent years could see higher-than-normal levels of wildfire because of drought. "This plan is intended to provide a higher-level framework of considerations and not specific operational procedures," the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group, made up of representatives from federal agencies who worked with state and local officials, wrote in each of the regional plans. "It is not written in terms of'how to' but instead provides considerations of'what,' 'why,' and'where.'"
As forecasters predict higher-than-normal chances of large fires in Northern California this year -- as well as the usual risk of "large significant" burning in Southern California -- fire authorities are growing increasingly concerned over their ability to muster a large, healthy force of firefighters in the face of COVID-19. Realizing that wildfire smoke will steadily impair a firefighter's immune system, and that traditional base camps can magnify the risk of infection, federal, state and county officials are urging a blitzkrieg approach to wildfires that will rely heavily on the use of aircraft. With the coronavirus still circulating, they say they cannot allow even the smallest secluded fire to smolder for the sake of forest ecology. All fires, they say, must be extinguished as quickly as possible. "Unfortunately, this is not a year in which we can afford to assign firefighters to monitor and manage such wildland fires," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) wrote to the departments of Interior and Agriculture recently as she urged aggressive firefighting in Northern California and other parts of the West.