Environment & Science

New app helps Los Angeles firefighters predict fires' spread

File: Ventura County Fire Department crews respond to the Casitas Fire on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
File: Ventura County Fire Department crews respond to the Casitas Fire on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
Ventura County Fire Department

There have been fewer fire breakouts recently, but you can never be too prepared for the next one in Southern California.

Firefighters with the Los Angeles Fire Department have been using a new tablet-based app called WiFire which provides information that can roughly predict how fast and where a potentially dangerous wildfire could spread.

Councilman Mike Bonin told KPCC that this is an issue he has been working on since he first took office in 2013. He said he believed that the department was using outdated and ineffective technology — but that the previous fire chief didn't understand what he was trying to accomplish.

“It was nuts. They didn’t have the same level of technology to do their jobs than your average teenager has playing Pokemon Go at the local mall," Bonin said. "I set out to start the fire department getting equipped with technology, but focusing on tablet technology.”

Three years later, the department is using 50 iPads enabled with WiFire, with one in each command vehicle. A demonstration held Thursday simulated a situation to show how crews would use the technology in a real-world setting. Bonin and Terrazas were in attendance. 

The back of the command vehicle was open with a laptop and an iPad inside. A helicopter flew overhead and mapped the perimeter of the simulated fire and electronically transmitted the information down to the iPad. At that point, the information would travel to a computer at UC San Diego, who helped develop the technology.  

Within three to four minutes, data was sent back that shows how intense the simulated fire could be and how it would spread within a projected timeline. The technology behind WiFire factors in the original size of the fire, the direction and speed of the wind and the distinct topography of the area, Bonin said. 

“It also gives them a much better early warning — accurate warning — of where evacuations might need to happen, which is obviously very crucial in saving lives," he said. "Minutes or seconds means lives are likely to be spared."

Until a few months ago, the department was using a piece of plastic called a "triangle" — a protractor-like device — to predict the movement of a blaze.  

“It was an advanced piece of technology 16 years ago, when they started using it, but we knew there was a better way," Bonin said. 

Firefighters have already used the app in about 5 to 10 fires, he added, including a brush fire on Wednesday.

“It’s certainly better than the technology that they were using previously. It may not always be 100 percent perfect in predicting, but it’s certainly a more predictive model using real, actual information," Bonin said.