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California Fire Whisperers

LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT firefighters and helicopter pilots were on “high-hazard fire staffing” in the early hours of November 24 as the Santa Ana winds picked up. Battalion Chief Tony Marrone of Air Operations was getting some shuteye in the three-bedroom dorm at Pacoima’s Barton Heliport when the alarm bell went off. It was 3:43 a.m. His pager followed.

It was his worst nightmare after the brutal season of charred homes in California: A five-acre brush fire had broken out near Corral Canyon Road in Malibu. Seventy-five firefighters from at least 15 county fire stations were en route to the blaze, which started off a dirt road near a cave — a late-night party hangout. Callers to 911 reporting the fire also said they heard speeding cars and horns blaring at 3:23 a.m.

“There are no power lines to start the fire,” says Marrone, an affable man in his mid-40s. “There is nothing to start a fire there.”

Within minutes, Marrone was riding shotgun in one of the county’s pricey Bell 412 helicopters toward the Santa Monica Mountains. Marrone — the helicopter coordinator for most of L.A. County’s largest fire disasters — instantly realized that they needed more air power, and quickly dispatched three Black Hawk helicopters, an action taken at night only if lives or property are in jeopardy. The fire, visible 20 miles away, was helped along by 30 mph winds. It had creeped to within a mile of the community of Malibu Bowl, and the neighborhood of El Nido was also in its path.

By the time they controlled the fire two days later, close to 2,000 firefighters, 14 water-dropping helicopters, 13 air tankers and two Super Scoopers had battled the Corral Fire, but not before it burned 4,901 acres, destroyed 53 homes, injured eight firefighters and forced the evacuation of thousands.

“We were getting jostled around,” says Marrone, raising his voice over a loud background noise (it turns out he’s so dedicated to his job, he’ll answer media questions while chowing down on macaroni or trying to take a shower). “It was a bumpy ride.”

He’s an old hand, a guy who understands the personalities of fires, judging wind speed, fire progression, topography, brush thickness — and deciding when to send in an air assault. It’s not an exact science, more of an art. He’ll even resort to the Thomas Brothers Guide if it can be of help. He wears a flashlight around his neck so he can read maps at night — as if he’s trying to figure out what the fire is thinking.

Call him a fire whisperer. In May 2007, Marrone predicted within half an hour the time at which the roaring 40-foot-tall wall of fire on Catalina Island, fueled by winds and brush, would reach Avalon and its 3,200 residents. Hundreds of residents and tourists were loaded onto ferries and whisked to San Pedro, while hundreds of firefighters aided by four helicopters dropped water.

But even as Malibu burned in late November, and Marrone sweated out the hours “eating Motrin,” several miles away another fire whisperer — grounded city of Los Angeles Fire Department pilot Steve Robinson — was getting calls from L.A. County’s fire chiefs asking for an entirely different kind of fire-mapping help. Pronto.

Unlike the county’s low-tech Marrone with his Thomas Brothers Guide and flashlight, the city’s Robinson is a high-tech fire whisperer, working virtually alone to create a system that uses computers, cameras and geographical data to mimic what Marrone does so well with his eyes. Robinson’s dream is to use that high-tech information to instantly share a visual picture of the wildfire with dozens of fire honchos who can make quick decisions on where and how to attack advancing flames.

That morning, however, county fire officials weren’t calling Robinson for his cutting-edge program, admittedly still months from perfection, but for his expertise with the long-proven and widely accepted technique of thermal infrared imaging, which picks out the fire’s “hot spots” so ground crews can put them out before they reignite. And “hot spots” are not just a few embers burning — they are invisible, superheated brushy areas near the ground that can feed an entirely new fire after eluding detection, sometimes days afterward.

ROBINSON’S rather large office, in a hard-to-find unmarked building at the city’s Air Ops next to Van Nuys Airport, is filled with equipment: gargantuan printers, a computer, a television and high-tech gadgetry. A topographical map of the Corral Fire in Malibu hangs on Robinson’s office wall. The huge red blob in the center shows the area where the fire burned. Next to his computer is an award for special achievement in geographical information systems technology, but the paperweight is turned upside down until a guest asks him what it is.

Robinson wears a beige pilot’s jumpsuit even though he is no longer a pilot — a horrible helicopter crash 10 years ago made sure of that. Robinson was piloting a Bell 412 helicopter, rushing a 12-year-old car accident victim to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, when the chopper’s tail rotor, without warning, broke off over the Hollywood Hills. His chopper clipped tall fir trees before slamming into a patch of grass near a wealthy area in Los Feliz, killing four people: the injured girl, a “helitac” flight-crew member and two paramedics.

 

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.

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.”

The old-school experts are not exactly impressed. But ESRI’s Russ Johnson wants to push the envelope even further, and wants to stop fires even earlier. Johnson, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, says fire departments focus too much on response times — and not enough on prevention. More advanced mapping technology could be used to much better pinpoint areas in need of brush clearance and neighborhoods with high numbers of wood shingles or other problems, so you “know where your problem areas are.”

“Most large cities already have software in place and oftentimes fire departments haven’t taken advantage of it,” says Johnson. “People don’t understand how powerful the technology can be .?.?. [With this technology] we can make better decisions, save more property and save more lives .?.?. It allows you and others to see it all the same way.”

For now, Robinson, the high-tech wiz, and Marrone, the old-school vet, will agree to disagree. But during the next big wildfires, Southern California’s handful of elite fire whisperers will still be after the same thing: saving lives and homes.

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