L.A. County looking into early detection system for wildfires


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision today to study an automated wildfire detection and response system was lauded by residents of wildfire-prone foothill communities, but fire experts are skeptical whether such technology exists or if it would be effective.

The board authorized studying a 24-hour, all-weather system that could result in wildfires being put out within minutes of starting.

“The Station fire graphically spotlights the need to study and identify solutions for establishing an automated early detection system,” the motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich reads. “The goal of a technology-based system would be to . . . have a programmed airborne response within minutes to suppress the fire before it spreads.”

Last summer’s Station fire, the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history, scorched more than 160,000 acres, killed two firefighters, destroyed dozens of structures and cost more than $95 million to fight.

If technology exists to detect a fire more quickly, “that’s an advantage to everyone,” said Elaine Aguilar, city manager of Sierra Madre, a San Gabriel Valley town nestled against fire-prone hills. “Fires don’t always start somewhere where somebody sees it driving by; they can happen in remote areas and travel quickly.”

Wildfire experts said there is merit in detecting wildfires early, but expressed doubts about whether technology is that advanced.

“Does the technology even exist to do this kind of thing?” asked Max Moritz, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach. “I think that’s an open question.”

“Under mild weather conditions we are very successful at early detection and putting fires out,” he said. “But under the conditions we’re most worried about -- Santa Ana winds, for instance -- it’s not clear that we’d be able to get airborne resources deployed within minutes.”

The idea is preliminary, said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich, whose district contains the Station fire burn area.

Antonovich and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D- Burbank) have called for a congressional inquiry into the U.S. Forest Service’s response to the Station fire amid criticism over delays and the decision to withhold water-dropping aircraft while the blaze was still small.

The county’s Quality and Productivity Commission is being instructed to look for any technology that could be applied to wildfires, including satellite imagery and military surveillance systems, Bell said.

“It would involve looking at . . . what’s being used anywhere in the world to provide early notification” so a fire could be extinguished before it grows, Bell said.

The commission is to report back in May.