Watchful eye

County emergency officials are dedicating resources toward fire prevention, but experts say those efforts would not preclude an event like the CZU Lightning Complex fires, which began in August. Adam Pardee / Review

New technology is joining the fight this year as Cal Fire readies for what could be a historic fire season.

With rainfall at half of normal and flare-ups in the CZU burn area already beginning in the Santa Cruz Mountains, local fire officials say every tool they can leverage will be critical in fighting fires as soon as they begin. Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Forestry Division Chief Rich Sampson said Alert Wildfire Cameras, drones and evacuation software could be crucial in saving lives during this summer’s firefight.

One new tool this year is the Smoke Point app, developed in response to the CZU fire by Google engineer and La Honda Fire Brigade member Gabe Schine. Schine presented the app, which is free and publicly available, to Fire Safe San Mateo County last week.

The app helps anyone who sees a fire starting to provide first responders with more than just a verbal description. It allows users to take photos of the smoke and pulls GPS coordinates to help locate the fire’s origin. Schine said he was motivated to create the app because of how important it is that information about fires lead first responders, who have limited resources, in the right direction.

“We often end up with very inactionable information or with information we cannot trust,” Schine said.

The Smoke Point app works in concert with Alert Wildfire Cameras, a system of wildfire cameras strategically positioned across the Coastside and around the state as part of a joint effort of three West Coast universities. The cameras provide high-quality images updated every 10 seconds to spot fires just as they start, and the imaging is fairly precise. When a fire spotted on a user’s phone through the Smoke Point app is triangulated with other cameras in the area, the app can pick up a more accurate read of the fire’s location, potentially saving valuable time in finding and putting out the fire.

The app can also help eliminate false reports of fog or backyard fires and conserve resources, Schine said. It pulls in readings from anyone publicly using the app so the information is crowdsourced, providing multiple angles and views of the smoke. It can also be used offline and in conjunction with Google Maps and other software, Schine said.

Sampson said the Smoke Point app and new wildfire cameras will make call-ins from the public more accurate and useful for crews on the ground. Last week, Deputy Fire Chief Jonathan Cox announced that a new Alert Wildfire Camera has been installed atop Montara Mountain, pointed southwest. Other cameras in the region include those positioned on Sweeney Ridge, Higgins Canyon, Tunitas, Allen Peak and Lane Hill, in Pescadero.

“We’re adding new cameras all the time,” Sampson said.

Cameras aren’t the only technology in Cal Fire’s arsenal. Sampson said Cal Fire often taps U.S. Department of Defense drones to fly high above fires with sensors that can spot infrared hotspots even when smoke and fog cloud the flames.

During the massive expansion of the CZU fire, Sampson said that not even an airplane could detect the fire’s movement due to heavy smoke, which made drone readings all the more important.

The next step is to begin using aerial views from satellites, which would be especially helpful in the Santa Cruz Mountains where hilltops often obscure views of canyons, even on high-quality camera footage.

“That's one of the benefits of being in Silicon Valley,” Sampson said. “I think we’ll have something in the next couple of years, but technology like that takes time.”

The fire season has already begun, as dry soil, dry fuels, warm temperatures and drought create a ripe combination for out-of-control fire, especially if wind and lightning strike. Small spot fires within the CZU burn area have tied up firefighting resources starting this spring. Sampson said, with limited crews this year, he’s worried the flare-ups are going to become even more problematic. Cox said the state is short by about 80 crews.

“We’re having to put resources on those to put them out that could be first on the scene to keep a fire elsewhere small,” Sampson said. “They're serious now. The reality is we’re going to see this all summer long.”

Sampson said residents should get ready for fire season now by hardening homes, getting evacuation plans and go-bags ready and letting first responders know if a fire starts nearby.

“If you see smoke, if you see fire, we need to know about it,” Sampson said. “And you need to have your house ready to go.”

This version corrects Schine's status as a current La Honda Fire Brigade member.

Sarah Wright is the deputy editor for the Review. She reports on unincorporated San Mateo County and local schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and has worked in policy and communications in Washington, D.C.

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