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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

$30 million award to fund wildfire-monitoring aircraft proven in major disasters

$30 million award to fund wildfire-monitoring aircraft proven in major disasters

Aircraft capable of predicting wildfire behavior and delivering information directly to crews on the ground in real time have proven invaluable in major disasters across California. Now, they will become a permanent part of firefighters’ arsenals after attracting millions of dollars in state funding, officials announced Tuesday, May 10.

Gavin Newsom will announce plans to allocate $30 million to the Fire Integrated Real Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) when he unveils California’s revised budget on Friday, May 17, according to officials with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The system was conceptualized nearly six years ago in a conversation between General Atomics, a Department of Defense contractor best known for designing Predator drones, and Brian Fennessy, the head of the Orange County Fire Authority.

He was the chief of the San Diego Fire Department at the time, and was asked by the city’s then-mayor, Kevin Faulkner, to create a real-time aerial monitoring system for wildfires.

After becoming head of OCFA, Fennessy continued to work with General Atomics to develop FIRIS. The concept raised funds for a pilot program, which eventually led to the system’s first aircraft.

“What we’ve learned is … (it has to be easy, it has to be quick, and it has to be real-time,” Fennessy said during a news event at a privately-owned airstrip in Burbank on Tuesday. “Any information 10 minutes late, 15 minutes late, 30 minutes late, that’s out of date.”

In the past, crews mapping the progress of a fire were required to land and manually upload their data. This meant that firefighters’ plans of attack against wildfires were often based on conditions that had already changed significantly.

The key components of the FIRIS system are two Beechcraft King 200 aircraft fitted with state-of-the-art sensors. Orange County Mission Commander Stan Kubota said the technology gives crews the ability to detect heat and see in the dark and through thick plumes of smoke.

Aircraft personnel send live updates about the spread and intensity of the fire directly to the cell phones of firefighters on the ground. This allows those coordinating disaster response to send teams where they are most needed as soon as possible, hopefully before life and structures are threatened.

“Historically, our strike teams were going blind in these fires,” Cal OES director Marc Gilarducci said on Tuesday. “They didn’t know what they were doing, and were listening to the news or maybe the radio. But now they can actually see what the fire is doing. From a safety point of view, it’s huge for firefighters.”

The FIRIS system has also been instrumental in determining which communities need to be evacuated during the recent wildfires in Southern California. And it has helped with the search for missing persons and was used to track the spread of a major oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach in 2021.

According to Fennessy’s estimates, the two FIRIS system aircraft covered the entire state, and each cost between $14 million and $16 million annually. Both spend hundreds of hours in flight each year, and may see even more use as the program expands and first responders find more ways to take advantage of them.

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