By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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Robinson and another firefighter barely survived, and Robinson was rushed to County USC Medical Center. He flat-lined twice, but was saved by an ER crew. When he woke up, he had no memory of the accident.
“We had to tell him several times about the accident,” says his older brother Richard Robinson, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “My dad and I were in there with him. I spent 10 days straight at the hospital.”
Robinson practically had to learn how to walk again, progressing from a wheelchair to walker to crutches, and then back to work. But less than a year back on the job, he suffered a seizure, which resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration revoking his medical status to fly. He remembers how he began “struggling to simply stay employed.”
How to do that? As he describes it, Robinson needed to make himself indispensable by developing “something the fire department doesn’t have, and needs.”
“It is a terrible shame when it is your childhood dream to fly,” says Robinson, who stands up so straight he looks like a Naval Academy graduate. In 2002, with no budget and scant help from the fire department, Robinson teamed up with Redlands-based ESRI — specialists in geographic information systems (or GIS) software — to put together a computer-mapping program that could map a fire in progress. The goal was to provide vital details like the size of the fire, the blaze’s proximity to homes and schools, and probable evacuation routes.
Using ESRI technology, the program, as applied by Robinson, can pinpoint the exact location of fire hydrants and, using census data, can estimate the threatened population in the fire’s path. For the Corral Fire, Robinson determined that 289 homes and an estimated 720 people were at risk.
That data is overlaid onto topographical and aerial photo maps, and handed over to the “incident-management team” fighting the fire. His program provides invaluable stats, including how steep the terrain is around the fire — which allows firefighters to determine if an area is too steep to bring in equipment. “For a guy who nearly gave his life for his job and department and gave up his ability to fly, a lot of guys would have folded up their tents and gone home,” says his brother Richard. “They wanted to retire him. Instead, he reinvented himself and created a very needed position in work that otherwise was going untouched.”
Not so fast. The low-tech fire whisperers aren’t buying it — at least not yet. Marrone — one of just 12 certified helicopter chief officers in Los Angeles County — doesn’t think he needs a computer to do the work of a pair of veteran eyes.
“I do that with my brain,” says Marrone of his understanding of wildfires. “I can look at a map and tell what direction the fire is going and how long it will take to get there.” Marrone makes his decisions based on a variety of factors including how dry and thick the brush is, how hilly the terrain is and how strong the wind is. “When we flew over the [Malibu] fire at 4 a.m., we knew we had a single brush fire, and we knew everybody south of the fire needed to be evacuated. It didn’t matter to me if there were 20 or 10,000 people. We needed to get them out. Basically, it is a pretty simple decision.”
Marrone argues that too much information — like the number of fire hydrants — can be distracting.
“If I got involved in that level of detail, nothing would happen,” he says. “I am the big-picture guy talking to the chiefs. The people on the ground know where to get the water. .?.?. You need a set of eyes and experience. If a big brush fire was less than a mile away, the average person would say, ‘You guys need to leave.’ You don’t need a wazoo system telling you where every fire hydrant is to tell you they need to evacuate.”
This is serious business, and not everybody agrees on how to proceed. Yet it’s so important to the job of fighting wildland fires in Southern California that the county’s fire department even has a “fire behavior specialist.” The current holder of that title, Drew Smith, has a high-pressure yet unique job as one of 10 such specialists in Southern California. Smith’s job is to look at the fire, analyze its height, width, intensity, speed — and how far ahead the blaze is sending its “spot” flames. Then he decides what to recommend.
That’s a lot of pressure. “The fire will tell the story,” says Smith. “From there I can see what is driving it,” and the “tactics that should be used to combat it.” Despite their destructive ways, fires in Malibu are actually quite predictable, he says, and are mostly wind driven.
“We act on the fire’s potential,” says Smith. “If we don’t base our actions on the fire’s potential, then we are behind the ball. We are not being proactive. We are being more reactive.”
Smith determined that the Corral Fire — like the 4,565-acre Canyon Fire in Malibu just before Halloween — was moving at an average of two-and-a-half mph, considered a fast rate of outward spread, and was throwing embers that created spot fires a quarter mile to a half mile in front of the leading edge of the blaze.