Tech to the Rescue

Daniel B. Botkin is professor emeritus of biology at UC Santa Barbara. His latest book is "Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist."

The dispute over whether Gov. Gray Davis was laggard in ordering aerial tankers and helicopters to fight fires in San Diego County suggests that we should do more with modern technology to deal with wildfire. Why, in this information age, wasn't there sufficient planning, earlier warning or more-rapid response? The technology exists for these tasks, and has for more than a decade.

Planning can benefit from computer-based models of forest fires that take into account fuel-loading from vegetation and such factors as soil dryness, wind and humidity. Connected to satellite imagery and on-site monitoring of wind speed and temperature, these models can make real-time forecasts of where fires may start and, once underway, where they may travel.

Cellular telephone technology makes possible a kind of reverse 911. Small devices using the technology could be mounted in homes in high-fire-risk areas and function in a way similar to smoke alarms. If a computer model forecast an imminent fire, the device could automatically broadcast information on the fire's probable location, speed and direction, the safest place for evacuation and the time available to get away.

Global positioning system (GPS) devices, now familiar to many car owners as part of map guidance systems, could be mounted on firetrucks to pinpoint their locations. Although this technology is widely available, many fire departments don't use it.

The computer models could also make zoning more fire-sensitive by requiring houses and housing developments in high-risk areas to have buffers of fire-resistant vegetation or, where these exist, to develop more defensive and larger zones. Planners could further reduce risk by using the data to better target areas for controlled burns. Houses would then be barred in those areas.

Why are these not standard practices? One answer might be costs. Alex Philip, president of GCS Research, works with the kind of hardware, software and computer-based planning I'm suggesting. He estimates that effective GPS devices might cost $1,000 apiece. Equipping 10,000 fire-support vehicles would cost $10 million.

The reverse-911 devices could be a moneymaker for cellphone companies. Cost to a homeowner might be an initial $500, plus a monthly fee. For 10,000 homes, that would amount to $5 million to install the devices. Add 500 monitoring towers in wooded canyons at $10,000 each.

Then add annual costs for a central monitoring facility and staff and for the monthly cellphone-link fee -- about $3 million. All told: Roughly $33 million to get started and $15 million of annual costs for five years. Compare that with the $1.6 billion the federal government spent fighting wildfires in 2002, fires that burned 7 million acres, resulting in an average cost of $243 an acre.

The federal government has made a few moves in response to the high costs of wildfires. The U.S. Forest Service is helping to develop a computerized model of the national landscape, called LandFire, that would generate estimates of where fire danger is greatest. Russ Johnson, who works for the major developer of geographic information software, Environmental Systems Research Institute, told me that the chief of the Forest Service has seen the latest software and was impressed, but foresters and firefighters have yet to perceive the usefulness of these technologies in reducing the risk and costs of catastrophic wildfires.

There might be another reason beside cost: our simple -- and simple-minded -- idea that only we can prevent forest fires; that if we act responsibly, we can prevent them in simple ways, say by not striking a match near chaparral or woodlands. In such a Smokey Bear world, we can live without any sense of risk.

But if we are to improve our response to wildfires, we must accept the idea that forest fires are natural and often necessary, and that risk is an inherent part of environment, and therefore of our lives. We need to move beyond Smokey Bear to an acceptance that risk is real, that change is natural and that we'd better get used to it and use our best technologies to reduce (never eliminate) the adverse consequences of wildfires.

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