New Technologies are Changing How Wildfires are Fought

May 28, 2021

By: Esther Heymans

As summer stretches on and the grass across the country turns from green to brown, thoughts of fire start to cross Americans’ minds. Wildfires are becoming increasingly catastrophic as it gets hotter and drier. After all, it only takes one spark to light a state on fire. Fire prevention and mitigation is becoming an increasing priority of communities, energy companies, local, and federal governments.

Wildfire prevention starts in the community. As more and more people move from urban areas into areas where wildfires are common, steps need to be taken to ensure fire safety. Jessica Gardetto, Chief of the Office of External Affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), told “The Current” about her favorite community-based resource fire prevention resource. “The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has really great Firewise resources on their website.  Firewise is a fire safety education program run by the National Fire Protection Association. The program seeks to help communities protect their homes against wildfires. Firewise is an excellent step in mitigating fires in neighborhood settings.

Oftentimes community prevention is not enough to stop a fire from starting. Local energy companies also play a key role in mitigating and preventing fires. Energy companies often work directly with local and federal governments to prevent fires. An important tool in energy companies’ back pockets is called the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS). In instances where fire is likely and demand is high, energy companies can shut off parts of their grid, lessening their demand. “It’s a last resort tool for us, we’re not trying to impact customers,” said Jonathan Woldemariam, Director of Wildfire Mitigation and Vegetation Management at San Diego Gas and Electric. Despite being a last resort, PSPS has been used consistently, in proportion to the increased wildfires in the past few years.

When wildfires do break out, local governments are the first line of defense. They are the first ones to coordinate response, evacuation, and community care. If the fire grows too big for city or state officials, then federal agencies like the NIFC provide coordination and response. Fire doesn’t stay in one easy jurisdiction, so interagency cooperation is critical to getting fires contained and managed. “As most people know, fire knows no boundaries,” Gardetto said.

New technology is also being utilized in the fight against wildfires. Drones are one of the newest innovations being employed by both energy companies and government agencies. Drones allow a bird’s eye view of wildfires that is necessary to determine spread and direction of the fire. Before that technology, firefighters had to find that bird’s eye view at greater risk to their person. “In a lot of cases firefighters have to hike and see what’s going on, where now you can send a drone and do that much more quickly and safely,” said Gardetto.

Wildfires aren’t going away. In fact, this year is projected to be one of the worst years for wildfires yet. This doesn’t mean that fire mitigation is a losing battle. Fires have been at the forefront of the minds of many different industries, and with that increased focus comes innovation and cooperation.  Energy companies have been especially mindful of the role that they play in fire management. “We have seen a large increase in California from wildfire threats, “said Woldemariam. Electric companies have stepped up to use their technology to prevent wildfires and help their communities. “Xcel Energy has been a leader in using drone technology, beyond line of sight and now we’ve been able to leverage that in wildfire areas,” said John Lee, Senior Director for Electric Distribution at Xcel Energy.

Energy companies’ cooperation with federal and state agencies allows firefighters to minimize damage through methods like PSPS. Additionally, energy companies are at the forefront of drone innovations. By pioneering this technology, they are creating avenues for it to be used in fire prevention. Energy companies are also an important line of communication to customers in potential fire paths. They are the perfect advocates for community fire safety programs such as Firewise. While energy companies aren’t the ones actively fighting flames, they serve as important intermediaries in every step of the wildfire mitigation process.

Listen to episode 27 of “The Current” to find out more!

Episode 27: Wildfire Mitigation and Prevention

In this special edition of The Current, Brad sits down with three guests to discuss the different ways that government agencies and electric power companies prepare for and respond to wildfires. Jessica Gardetto, Chief of the Office of External Affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), gives insights into the challenges of firefighting and how local and federal agencies coordinate with one-another. Then, two electric power industry experts join the conversation to discuss ways their companies address the threat from wildfires on their infrastructure and to customers: John Lee, Senior Director for Electric Distribution at Colorado-based Xcel Energy, and Jonathan Woldemariam, Director of Wildfire Mitigation and Vegetation Management at San Diego Gas and Electric.