ABC News reports on technology in wildland firefighting – Wildfire Today

Wildfire Today
News and opinion about wildland fire
“In many cases, we’re still fighting fire with sharpened pieces of metal attached to the ends of sticks,” said Bill Gabbert.
Here are excerpts from an article published September 8 by ABC News.
As wildfires in California and beyond have grown larger and deadlier in recent years, some in the firefighting sector say the tools and technologies used to combat new blazes have not kept up with the impact of climate change’s fury.
“In many cases, we’re still fighting fire with sharpened pieces of metal attached to the ends of sticks,” Bill Gabbert, who worked as a full-time firefighter for more than 30 years before becoming managing editor of the industry publication Wildfire Today, told ABC News. “Hand crews, using hand tools and chainsaws to remove the fuel on the edge of a fire so the fire burns up to that area where there is no fuel and then it stops spreading, that’s how we put out fires.”
Some major technological leaps, including computer modeling simulators have been made to help assist firefighters, but funding and bureaucratic hurdles in many cases have prevented their widespread adoption in communities that may need them. Meanwhile, a handful of entrepreneurs see the blank space as a ripe opportunity for new innovations they say can ultimately help save lives as the West now grapples with some of its largest fires ever recorded.
Jon Heggie, a battalion chief at Cal Fire, told ABC News that many fire agencies in recent years have explored emerging technologies as a way to address issues that arise in firefighting, noting how Gov. Gavin Newsom of California put out a call for “innovative ideas” to create “cutting-edge firefighting technology” in fall 2019.
One of the results of this effort — and “really, the one that stands out,” according to Heggie — was the creation and adoption of a computer modeling service that predicts a fire’s spread developed by the Bellevue, Washington-based firm Technosylva.
MORE: Nevada records worst air quality on record as wildfire smoke spreads
The software integrates weather, topography, fuel (combustable material) and more to “give us a real-time estimation of fire growth over a given period of time,” Heggie said.
“Anytime there is a fire started anywhere in California, a simulation is started so that the field commanders have that real-time information from the minute a fire starts,” he added. “It populates that fire based on where the fire was reported, that may not be accurate of where the fire actually is, so when the first arriving engines get on scene, they give a more updated report of location and then another report is generated and that will be more accurate.”
The data is critical for giving early evacuation notifications to communities that could be in the path of the fire, as well as for decision-making on how to best combat a blaze.
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After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.
How about just declassification of military IR satellite systems? I think Australia already uses ours anyway? GPS used to be classified too, just takes someone to do the paperwork.
Or just ask Elon to make a new civilian system.
#2 is the winner. Musk can gets something done in days, not decades.
Musk funding wildfire tech? Only if he can make a buck. I would not hold my breath. Better shot asking MacKenzie Scott, Bezos ex wife for a grant.
New tech for tracking lightning strikes, wind shifts, improve topography maps, road maps, improved aircraft, water tenders, vehicles and more are great. How about some tech for helping Firefighters on the lines too; like better pay, improvements in treating fire injuries and pensions for families of fallen Firefighters?
Yes sir!! That’s the need. Higher pay. Wildland Fire fighters remain one of the lower paying career choices. 15 years as a wildland firefighter, I’ve worked on fires in 5 different states so far and it’s always talked about..,,low pay for high risks.
The tech is here already and it’s not expensive. A $25,000 drone with mapping tech. I have one and yes I comply with ALL FAA regs, not to mention that my drone has “ADS-B IN” meaning that I can see aircraft within about 10 miles of my drones location. It can perform just as well, if not better than a helicopter with 2 personnel on board. It isn’t restricted to daylight operations AND it reduces the risk to pilots and ground personnel.
The best kicker is, is that it free’s up that helicopter to perform other, more critical aerial operations, such as bucket drops.
Here’s the problem, the USFS, BLM (DOI) USParks, etc. have an odd 1 year contract with 4 optional years ($17 million dollar contract btw) that was awarded in 2018. It was awarded to only 4 companies, thus funneling that technology and usage to ONLY those companies.
I personally have over 10 years of structural and wildland experience as well as 4 years of UAS disaster experience (incident free by the way) and the agencies are truly anti-drone.
This is due to hobbyists and commercial folks who intentionally or unintentionally break the law by flying in TFR’s. For that reason alone, you guys will be limited to those 4 companies and the small/aging fleet that the agencies have. Unfortunately until the FAA starts enforcing the law, the problem is unsolvable and with the agencies unwilling to note that, it comes with the anchor to getting you guys on the line the latest tech at a low price.
In all honesty, I actually charge less than real estate drone guys for some of the county’s because I know that they don’t have access to the tech it’s a safety issue.
Some food for thought for management.
The problem with this is fire can change behaver like any living thing. The system can be flawed by the info like wind change direction out of the blue now we have people in the path of the fire and that is not good. Look at storm king mountain fire
It’s standard journalism to blame “the fury of climate change” for all these fires. Will there ever be a mainstream journalist who will actually walk the woods and realize that the fuels are a foot deep on the forest floor from decades of fire suppression with no prescribed burning, or that the trees are multiple times as dense as they should be for a healthy forest? Or that decades of clearcut logging have left large swathes of forest in a condition where the trees are too small for any prescribed burning, but cannot be defended from wildfire either? It is in no one’s interest to continue this failed paradigm, not firefighters, not loggers, not environmentalists, and not for the people who live in or near these forests. I actually did have a tank truck driver assert that fires could be stopped in re-planted clearcuts, but if that’s the case I’ve never seen it done. Every burn area I look at is a 100% kill in old clearcuts, from one side to the other. This resets the clock on commercial-age timber, so if the acreage was replanted 30 years ago, that many years of timber production have been lost. And that assumes that the next time that acreage gets a nice start on growth, it doesn’t burn up again in a perpetual cycle that never does reach marketable age. We might call this “Sisyphus Forestry”.
This is not climate change. This is mismanagement. If you call it climate change no one has to take responsibility. No one is to blame. There is no liability. But, if you use the word mismanagement then someone has to take responsibility. Some of the land hasn’t been burned in 40 years. I could go on about the tools and the lack of modeling, but I think Bill has covered it. Thanks Bill for the article.
I disagree. Climate change is upon us and everyone needs to take responsibility.
The “mismanagement” of our forests started in the 1800’s via massive clear cuts and no replanting efforts at all across the country from Vermont to California and across the globe really. This permanently changed the “nature” of the forests involved.
Example. The Redwood Forests we visit today represent only 5% of the original Redwoods found in the 1840’s.
J. Smith, I am an Air Quality Specialist and Climate Change Expert. I have worked for the TAMU, state of Texas, UofA, NPS, FS, Air Force, and Army. I can talk for hours about anthropogenic and natural sources and bore you with the basics and history of climate change and global warming. But, the truth is a 800,000 or 900,000 acre fire is not climate change it is poor planning. It is mismanagement. Where are the fire breaks? When was the last prescribe burns? Yes, I agree with you about mismanagement starting in the 1800, but things have gotten so much worse in the West. I work in R8 (southeast) and then R3 (southwest) and R8 did prescribe burns, but R3 didn’t. I was like they we scared of clear cutting or doing prescribe burns. I asked around and apparently there had been a prescribed burn that got out of hand and people died and then they just stopped doing prescribe burns. But, it’s my opinion that it’s worse than that…that the FS is addicted to Fire Money. That they don’t do prescribed burns, because they get more money from Congress if it’s a wildfire. They can’t fire borrow (steal money from other divisions) any more, so they go to Congress and ask for more money and of course Congress can’t look bad to their constituents, so they give them more money.
Oh, Climate Change is not boring to me. I have a close friend that is working out of Ames NASA taking regular measurements of shrinking Arctic Ice, warming ocean waters, other shrinking patches of ice and CO2 etc; has been for decades. The short answer I hear is that we are in “real trouble.”
We have seen large fires in the past as well. Example. The Michigan Fire of 1871 consumed some 2.5 million acres while claiming over 500 lives. But, the real shocking news about wildfires this year is coming from Siberia where over 250 wildfires have burned 2,500 square miles of forests of the Yakutia region alone; parts of which are in the Arctic Circle. (The Weather Channel has a video showing the huge plume of smoke going over the North Pole via satellite)
As for “controlled burns.” My wife worked for the FS for about 15 years; fighting fires by hand and also communications. Her first hand experience of controlled burns is that people call in right away to warn about the smoke then when they hear it is a “prescribed burn” they “complain” about the smoke. And, most of these burns happen in late fall, late winter or early spring when (they hope) no breeze and it is colder. Yes, the squeaky wheel still gets the grease and controlled burns become a classic “Catch-22.”
It looks like the USDA budget for “Wildland Fire Management” is $2.1 billion dollars for fiscal 2022. In context, the entire Federal Budget Estimate for 2022 is $6 trillion. Please check my math, but that appears to be .04% of spending at the Federal level. I my mind, hardly enough money to “steal” as you put it. Of course States can try to budget for Firefighting too, but that is also a political football.
I’ll remind you that rural California fought against raising taxes for fire prevention about 5 years ago; and in El Dorado County particularly. Then after the measures were rescinded or defeated by the voters, Firefighters were laid off because the same people that lost their homes in places like Paradise and Grizzly Flats did NOT think the money was was worth it; another wildfire Catch-22. (What till our home owners insurance premiums are recalculated after this year.)
So. How large and wide do your proposed fire breaks need to be, how many will we need in the entire “Western” region, who will build them, how quickly will they be built, who will maintain or manage them through the years and decades? And, more importantly, how much will it cost for whom? Then let the “squeaking” begin; or the rinse and repeat of non-action due to wildfire Catch-22.
Big Woop! In the end, in spite of all the techy ideas here we’re still going to be “……. fighting fire with sharpened pieces of metal attached to the ends of sticks,”. Boots on the ground put out fires, not slurry bombers, not computer modeling simulators.
This modern tech stuff is great, I still like a dependable compass and Topo map, but I am an old FF, I had folks that could use this tech stuff they tried to no avail to impart to me these tools. My thing as a shot supt was to gather intel by walking the ground and keep walking the ground, that was my job. I always thought we were in our element when we were anchoring and flanking w/ one foot in the black, my last assignments as a branch director before I retired was to see folks trying to use this tech to put the fire out, driving around with an I-pad drawing lines on a map, sure there is a place for this, but parking your crew at a drop point for hours while you work up a plan is nonsense…..go walk the ground….take the i-pad with you if you like. Yes I agree it still requires old fashioned methods to put fire out, but things have changed, we are not as aggressive as we once were and I believe that changed occurred do to the 30 Mile incident, it has become easy to say no, I only recall a handful of times turning down an assignment, if the assignment was unsafe we would find a way to fully implement LCES, we were there to do a job, it’s not supposed to be easy.
I know I am a dinosaur, I was raised in So Cal wildfire USFS, we were taught to be aggressive, hit the fire hard….real hard….Peace….
Hey Tom thanks for your comments, I think you are spot on.
Tom and OLDDRHS, you guys nailed it. Technology as its place, but nothing beats the human brain backed by years of experience. there’s something to be said for some gray hairs on one’s head in this business. I-pads have their place but one has to keep in mind that it’s not going to make sound decisions for you, and if the battery decides to take a dump you had better have a good Topo map and a plan to go with it.
Yes, shovels and boots on the ground will always be needed actually put out fires. What you are missing is the huge improvements tech has been helping make in fire prevention and in the preplanning of suppression efforts. The article references Technosilva whose modeling for SDGE has prevented countless starts. SDGE has thousands of wind sensors on their power poles and can do real-time wind and fire modeling. With that real-time modeling, they use smart grid technology to perform super localized power shutoffs when wildfire risk exceeds acceptable limits. The data speaks for itself as SoCAL sees fewer and fewer starts every year while PGE and their inaction continue to start a catastrophic fire every year.
Wall Street Journal had a long article on the CalFire “moneyball” computer program effort today. I’d include a link but it’s paywalled I’m sure. It notes that it helps but has limitations, as do cameras, etc. still a human process from detection to recovery most often.
After 20 years in the industry I developed a much improved hand tool for fireline work. It took the proven ideas of the Reinhart, Bosley, Pin, Y, Rhino and Combi-tools, it optimized and improved their ideas with unique and innovative features. It has far better balance and much less vibration, while being adjustable as a entrenching tool and shovel.
For four years it was in the field being improved, but after many attempts I was never able to get it into any submission program. The production prototypes are still out there working today. So if Governor Newsome wants to really make a difference to the guys with “the sharpened metal at the end of a stick”, he should give me a call. Bill Gabbert has my contact information
J. Smith,
Sorry it took so long to respond. I’ve been having some technical difficulties.
That’s so cool that your friend works at AMES. So, I’m guessing you’ve seen videos like, NASA Releases Time-Lapse Video Of Depleting Arctic Ice Cap ( and videos of Antarctic (
It is a “real” problem! 1) There’s the feedback problem…ice melts then the water melts more ice and 2) as the ice melts the Earth’s albedo changes. Anyway, we are way passed the tipping point. The tipping point was 2000. If we made the necessary changes before 2000 than life would be easier. Long story short, we didn’t make the necessary changes, so now we have to work even harder to fix the problem. We have to switch to renewables. Methane is 25x worse than carbon and we don’t even regulate (i.e. put BART on natural gas). A don’t even get me started on how we waste 60% of our water on coal power plants. They say we are in a drought, but we waste so much water to produce electricity, when we could be using solar.
OK, OK, back to the point, the NPS and FS have been so consumed with fighting fires that they do not manage the land anymore. We need more prescribe burning. We need to change the laws to encourage more prescribe burning. Right now, the NPS/FS has to deal with Exceptional Event Rule, Haze Rule, and the Clean Air Act. These laws hinder prescribe burning. We need to get away from thinking of burns as natural or anthropogenic and look at them as prescribe burns and wildfires. We need to help the public understand that if the NPS/FS does prescribe burns than it reduces the catastrophic wildfires. When I lived in Alabama, the public understood why there was smoke during prescribe burns. They weren’t always happy, but they understood. And yes, I totally understand the squeaky wheel. In Colorado, there was a man who would complain if smoke went on his property. He sued and won. We even added him to the variance sheet. If the wind goes towards his property than No-Go. I have to say kudos to him, because according to the permit/law the smoke is not suppose to leave the property.
Budget and Taxes? Thank you for those numbers. I don’t think we will ever know the real numbers on the budget. For the last 10 years, I got to review the budget and it is a mess. Thousands and thousands of pages…I hate pork. Seriously, this person making deals with this person. It’s just a real mess!!! And, yes, I understand what you are saying about taxes. Things got so bad here in Colorado, that communities are creating there own fire departments, because the NPS/FS isn’t doing their job.
As for your questions about fire burns…I saw this video a while back on Ted Talks ( and I think Paul Hessburg might be able to answer your questions better than I.
Hope you have a great day! Talk to ya later!
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