By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Smith’s arsenal includes historic maps dating back to the early 1900s that give the fire history of the area. The brush feeding the Corral Fire had last burned during the 1996 Calabasas Fire. “We were dealing with 11-year-old vegetation,” says Smith. “It will react differently than 2-year-old or 30-year-old vegetation. Vegetation goes through stages of lush and green, cycles of frost, bug infestation, and die-back periods.”
Despite their differences of opinion, the elite fire behaviorists and fire mappers, whether low tech like Marrone and Smith or high tech like Robinson, are important now that so many Californians live in the so-called wildland-urban interface. Forest ecologist Volker Radeloff of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, whose team shocked some public officials when it calculated that 5 million Californians now live along the wildlands-urban interface, says that the numbers of people in the fire-prone areas are so staggering that eventually “all the technology fixes will be overwhelmed.”
THEIR DEBATE OVER HOW BEST to protect the tens of thousands of homes is inspiring some to propose fresh answers. This year alone, Southern California has seen infernos in Malibu and Griffith Park, on Catalina Island, and in Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Beyond the fire whisperers who try to understand the very nature of these fires, other inventors are proposing odd-sounding, pie-in-the-sky plans to use military or cargo planes to drop huge, biodegradable balloons filled with water, retardant or firefighting gel.
In 2003, Robinson’s technology seemed promising. It was put to the test during the 2003 Simi Valley Fire, then the 2005 Topanga Fire, which burned more than 24,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Fire chiefs predicted that the Topanga Fire would reach the ritzy communities of Oak Park and Hidden Hills in just four hours. Robinson flew over the fire and used his computer calculations to warn fire officials that they were wrong: The fire, he predicted, would reach those areas in just two hours.
The fire honchos listened to Robinson, sped up the evacuations, and managed to save all but a few structures.
Robinson, trying to change a system set in its ways, has found some fans along the way. “We think it is one of the most advanced and important moves to help firefighting locally, statewide and nationally,” says Bob Cavage, a retired aeronautical systems engineer and president of the Wildfire Research Network, a Topanga Canyon–based nonprofit that looks into alternative methods to control wildfires. “This system is really needed across the board, and is the closest thing to being real .?.?. What you do in the first five minutes [of a fire] will determine what will happen in the next five hours. It is very important that you size up the situation instantly .?.?. Instead of taking hours to get this information understood, you can do it in minutes.”
In fact, the city of Los Angeles is so serious about the potential for new technologies like Robinson’s that it allocated $350,000 to help with his pet project, and Hewlett-Packard donated $250,000 worth of computers and software. In 2005, Robinson received $1.2 million in federal grants.
But more often than not, the new thinkers run into resistance. “Now the system only works when Steve is there,” says Cavage. “He is the only one who knows how to use it. They [LAFD] haven’t tried to help him. We only have the coverage when Steve is there .?.?. We the citizens are being deprived of a 24-7 system.”
That’s what unfolded the morning of the Corral Fire on November 24, says Cavage. He says Robinson was contacted by county officials that morning — but his city bosses didn’t give the grounded pilot the “go” to assist the county for hours — not until 3 p.m. “Most of his LAFD leaders didn’t want to commit,” says Cavage. The helicopter Robinson needed to view the fire “was transporting personnel. They didn’t want to disrupt that for this thing .?.?. Meanwhile the [fire-spotting] camera was taken off the helicopter. They don’t understand the value of the system .?.?. They just don’t get it.”
But the truth is, his system is still unwieldy. During the Corral Fire, Robinson flew the perimeter, returned to Van Nuys, downloaded the fire data onto his computer, printed it onto large-scale maps, then drove his car to Malibu and handed the information to the incident commander. Not exactly Google Earth. It took him hours.
“Right now it is not a very efficient system,” says LAFD Battalion Chief Joseph Foley of Air Operations. “The information we get is great, but it is not particularly timely.” Foley says that in time that will change. Recently, the LAFD contracted with an agency to build a radio communications tower at Mount Lee near the Hollywood sign that will transmit Robinson’s data from a chopper to LAFD headquarters. Eventually, the city plans to outfit a vehicle with a computer that can download Robinson’s data directly from the helicopter in seconds. Foley estimates it will cost $600,000, and at least one year to set up.
“You are only doing an educated guess, and with a camera you are more accurate,” says Foley, who is Robinson’s boss. “When you have a couple of thousand acres burning it really gets complicated. The camera will take all the information you have and pinpoint it into a database and come out with a more accurate figure.”
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