Technology Increasingly Tames Wildfires

Advances in technology have made prevention an increasingly crucial and feasible component in fighting large, long-lasting wildfires. Chris Dicus, associate professor of Fire and Fuels Management at California Polytechnic University, speaks with Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week has been a grueling one for the firefighters in Southern California. By all accounts, they've been extraordinarily effective.

Chris Dicus is a professor of fire and fuels management at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He uses an unusual reference in his teaching. Professor Dicus frequently tells his students about the lessons to be learned from last year's sword-and-sandal movie "300."

Dr. CHRIS DICUS (Fire and Fuels Management, California Polytechnic State University): In that movie, there was a very small trained force that went up against the vicious mob, and time after time they held their own. And they didn't do it because of the vast amount of people that they had, but they did it because they fortified where the battle was taking place.

And if you're going to fight Mother Nature, it can't be on her terms. She's going to win every time.

HANSEN: Is there a battle plan, when firefighters go to fight this kind of fires?

Dr. DICUS: A battle plan is actually based on the military. We call it the instant command system, where we have an instant commander that sort of serves as a general. And he's responsible for five to seven people who is then responsible for another five to seven people. But what we're finding is if we're really going to solve this problem, it's more than putting wet stuff on the red stuff.

And a big extent of that is actually kind of preparing the battlefield before the fire ever happens.

HANSEN: What do you mean by that?

Dr. DICUS: It's setting off for victory. When you're fighting fires, you would want to take away the supplies from the enemy. So, therefore, before the fire ever happens, we can modify the vegetation around, where we can cut back the brush, thin out trees et cetera. So that when the fire does come - and it will come in California eventually - it's not going to be as fierce as it possibly could have been.

We want to have better armor for our soldiers and our men(ph). So therefore, we build our homes in ways that's going to protect against the attacks of the fires that comes against us.

HANSEN: And what would be a way to build a home in that way?

Dr. DICUS: You've got to build with fire-resistant construction, and you've got to put it together in a way that's going to resist it. Now, fire is going to come at homes in two main ways.

One is going to be the flames, and so we pay a lot of attention to the siding, fire-resistant siding. It would behoove us to have a fire-resistant roof. That's probably the most critical thing a person living a fire-prone area can do is change the roof to be fire resistant.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DICUS: But another vastly important part of home construction is the small things that would allow embers to get in. And what research is showing is that the majority of the homes are not being consumed by this tsunami wave of flames. It's actually starting by embers getting into the attic, getting on top of the roof.

You have what we call spotting, in which embers are being thrown, literally, miles ahead of the main fire front and has this sort of leapfrogging effect across the landscape. So even if you put, you know, half mile fire line, would you - totally denuded all vegetation, all fuel, that doesn't mean that the fire is not going to jump over that fire line. So putting up screens over your vents into the attic - vastly, vastly important.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. How is technology being used in this fighting of wall fires?

Dr. DICUS: Fire behavior modeling is becoming more and more prevalent, where we're able to predict with greater accuracy where the fire is going to go, how fast it's going to go, what's it going to be like when it gets to a certain area. Infrared cameras - they're able to see heat through the smoke. And this is going to sound crazy in this monster, monster fires we've seen, but a lot of times we don't know where the actual flames are because there's so much smoke in the air. And that's incredibly dangerous for the firefighters and, you know, if you're trying to strategize for the best place to attack this, it's critical that you know where the fire is making its run.

HANSEN: Do you think any of those measures actually change the real nature of basic firefighting?

Dr. DICUS: Well, when it comes down to it, it's just a lot of grunt work, because they're some of the same principles that have been applied for the last 100 years. Hand crews, digging line around the fire or bulldozers - we kind of kid with each other in the fire circles that we try to smother the fire with money then pray that the weather is going to change.

HANSEN: Do you think there are new lessons being learned by these recent fires in firefighting techniques?

Dr. DICUS: I certainly hope so. The writer Douglas Adams - he once said, human beings are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

You know, fire is - it's an inevitable in California. It's going to happen. The widespread losses that we've seen, I don't think that they have to happen.

HANSEN: Hmm. But it sounds like that involves more than just firefighters. It has to involve cooperation of a lot more people.

Dr. DICUS: Oh, indeed it does. In fact, I think that there's actually sort of an overreliance of the fire service. We sometimes - we see smoke and we call 911 and we expected an engine is going to show up any second and park right in our driveway. And I think that's a bad philosophy to have.

When these major fire events broke out like we had in Southern California last week, the crews are quickly overwhelmed, stretched to the limit. And even if they could be in every single driveway with an engine, it'll almost be suicidal to stand in front of these monster fires that are driven by hurricane-force winds.

I had a friend that once recently told me that California is nothing more than God's natural disaster theme park. But I would contend that it's only a disaster because we have built up in these areas that are fire prone. They're not only fire prone. Fire in this California chaparral is actually an essential ecological process. It's almost like rain. The plants there, just as much as they need rain, they need long-term stand-replacing fires to come through and to renew the sites that are there.

So the disaster comes when we decide to build in an area that is fire prone. But I think that we can live together with fire, and we can stop a cycle of repetitive loss that we've been seeing.

HANSEN: Chris Dicus is a professor of fire and fuels management at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. Thanks again.

Dr. DICUS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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