Commission urges LA County to adopt more firefighting technology

A Los Angeles county commission recommended today using satellites and ground sensors for early detection of wildfires, digital mapping systems for helicopters and standardizing rules for managing fires in forest areas.

The commission released a report urging the Board of Supervisors to partner with federal agencies to pilot a program using satellite technology to pinpoint wildland fires.

The U.S. Forest Service already uses a weather satellite for detection, according to the analysis produced by the Quality and Productivity Commission of the county's Chief Executive Office.

The report also recommends that Los Angeles County firefighters field test surveillance cameras and infrared ground sensors to determine which specific equipment best suits the county's geography and other unique conditions.

"Some of the most destructive fires in recent years began at night, when few people were awake to report them,'' the report states. "Others began in remote and relatively low-risk areas, but spread to threaten urban areas.

"More effective early detection and rapid response capabilities will provide the Los Angeles County Fire Department and other coordinating fire agencies with another valuable tool to combat and ultimately prevent the growth of wildland fires.''

Helicopter avionics which offer terrain guidance and the most direct route to fires in progress were also recommended for study by county fire personnel.

New 24-hour, automated technology may help firefighters identify threats and get to the source of a blaze quickly, but coordination between all the fire agencies involved in any major brush fire may be just as important in mitigating damage, the task force determined.

The commission also urged the county to create a task force of "all fire agencies in Los Angeles County to agree on one common set of rules of engagement for suppressing fires in the extended wildland urban interface.''

That proposal spoke most directly to Antonovich's concern that the U.S. Forest Service moved too slowly in an air attack on last year's massive Station Fire, which ultimately burned 250 square miles of forest, destroyed about 200 structures -- including about 90 homes -- and resulted in the death of two
county firefighters.

The fire initially cost $95 million to fight, but the flooding and mudslides in the rainy season that followed cost millions more and are likely to continue to burden the county for years to come.

The report was not intended as a review of the response to the Station Fire and offered only this dry assessment: "As the lead agency, the Forest Service followed its procedures for suppression. Its rules precluded nighttime aerial water drops, even though LACoFD was capable of nighttime aerial
firefighting. The next day the fire continued to spread.''

The report did suggest that the area of forest land that is considered as an "interface'' to residential areas be expanded.

"Encroachment of residences into what was once remote forest is an ongoing fact in Los Angeles County,'' increasing the risk from even remote fires, the report concluded.

Detailed interagency coordination agreements already exist, but the report suggested that additional consensus was needed on the area of urban interface, as well as new technologies for common radio communication and more aggressive clearing in parts of the forest surrounding structures or bordering residential areas.

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