LAFD turns to cutting-edge technology to battle brush fires

In recent years, Santa Ana wind-fueled brush fires have taken a toll in Southern California.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has not only been facing more brush fires, but more extreme ones as well.

"The frequency of these fires and the size of these fires are bigger and faster than we've ever seen," said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas.

That is why the fire department has turned to cutting-edge technology to keep up with the growing fire threat. At the heart of that high-tech is what's called the WIFIRE system, a computer program that crunches real-time weather data, topography and fuel status from dozens of sensors spread throughout Southern California. It tells firefighters how a new brush fire will grow.

"It tells us where the fire is and where it's going," Terrazas told Eyewitness News."It allows us to know what areas are threatened, which homes may need to be evacuated, where we need to deploy our firefighters. Situational awareness, enhancing that knowledge as fast as you can allows us to make better, smarter decisions."

At the same time firefighters are tapping into the WIFIRE system, they're also launching a new weapon in their arsenal: a set of two, fixed-wing aircraft called FIRIS, the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System. When a brush fire is first reported, the planes take flight and immediately begin mapping the perimeter of the fire, so the department knows where to best send its crews.

"Historically it would take all day and maybe the next day before we could free a helicopter or a fixed wing to fly the perimeter," said Terrazas. "Now we do it within the first 30 to 60 minutes of a fire."

Terrazas say that information also leads to faster and more accurate evacuation plans.

"The old way of fighting brush fires is becoming antiquated," he said. "We can't afford to be wrong... and if we can use this knowledge to make good tactical and strategic decisions, we can save more people and more property."

The department is also committed to using drone technology as well. It has nine drones that firefighters have been using for the past couple years. Some of the drones are equipped with infrared cameras and are able to point ground crews to hot spots, so they can extinguish them.

In the past, the department relied on its expensive and maintenance-heavy helicopters to do that job, but Terrazas says with new choppers costing more than $18 million apiece, the drones, which cost between $2,000 to $5,000 each, are a big discount.
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