Wildfire risk? There’s an app for that — in San Diego

California fires October, 2003

Above: Southern California fires, October 2003. The smoke plumes rising from the fires. Moving northwest to southeast along the coast, the first cluster of red dots is a combination of the Piru, Verdale, and the Simi Incident Fires; The next cluster-to the east of Los Angeles-is the Grand Prix (west) and Old (east) Fires; To their south is the Roblar 2 Fire; Next is the Paradise Fire; Then the massive Cedar Fire, whose thick smoke is completely overshadowing the coastal city of San Diego; Finally, at the California-Mexico border is the Otay Fire. (A fire in Baja California is also visible.) NASA photo.

Firefighters in Southern California will soon be able to check their smartphones to monitor a fire’s behavior in real-time — and in some cases predict the future.

Fire agencies convened Friday in San Diego for a Wildfire Preparedness Summit hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric in conjunction with the San Diego Fire Foundation.

Weather stations around the region already record wind speed and humidity levels, vegetation maps document moisture and growth levels, and historical data already informs risk analysis. The utility provider has plans to combine all of those variables in a smartphone app that doubles as a predictive tool, the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper reported. 

The tool would compute scenarios in real time and better inform firefighters about resource needs and future fire behavior.

From the Union-Tribune’s report: 

“San Diego Gas & Electric owns and operates the largest weather utility network anywhere in the country,” said Brian D’Agostino, a meterologist for the utility who has overseen the weather networks construction which began eight years ago following the 2003 and 2007 firestorms that swept large parts of San Diego County.

“We run weather models and we’re getting to the point now that we’re taking all of this information and data and integrating it into world-class fire behavior models that have never been built before,” he said. “They are being built for the first time right here in San Diego.”

A developer working on the new smartphone app program said it is already semi-operational and should be refined for more widespread use before Santa Ana winds arrive in the fall.

The utility company’s efforts on the weather prediction front have made headlines in the past. Those weather stations — more than 170 in total — monitor every electrical circuit in SDG&E’s highest fire risk area, providing real-time readings of wind speed, humidity, and temperature every 10 minutes, Dave Geier, vice president of electric transmission and system engineering, wrote in a 2016 piece for The Energy Times.

The company in 2014 worked with the U.S. Forest Service, UCLA and the National Weather Service to develop another tool dubbed the “Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index” for Southern California.

San Diego County, of course, has repeatedly been ground-zero for destructive and deadly wildfires. Among the most notable: the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 With Creek Fire.

Utility equipment has been found to have ignited fires in the past, including during the 2017 firestorm. In turn, that has ignited a debate about fault and who should be held accountable to cover ensuing costs.

Author: Jason Pohl

In addition to writing for Wildfire Today, Jason Pohl reports on public safety-related issues for The Arizona Republic and USA TODAY.