LOS ANGELES TIMES: Orange County OKs funds for aircraft to monitor and help predict wildfires’ spread

Thursday, August 15, 2019

By Daniel Langhorne

The Orange County Board of Supervisors accepted a $4.5-million state grant Tuesday that will fund a 150-day pilot program for a fixed-wing aircraft that will monitor area wildfires, providing incident commanders with real-time information on fire conditions.

The Orange County Fire Authority will oversee operation of the dual-prop plane, which will be flown by a contractor, Courtney Aviation.

Firefighters will have access to video and images shot by the aircraft’s infrared cameras within five minutes of its arrival over a site.

“This new tool will immediately tell us the direction of the fire, so we can safely and rapidly evacuate residents, as well as position fire crews in precise locations to better protect life, property and infrastructure during a wildfire,” Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said in a written statement.

Images obtained by the aircraft will inform the data-based computer models developed by the WIFIRE Lab at UC San Diego.

California firefighters have benefited from the so-called Firemap’s real-time projections of wildfire behavior based on past and current weather conditions, weather forecasts, satellite detection and information about vegetation and landscapes.

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) requested the $4.5-million grant for the pilot program as part of the 2019-20 state budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“These state funds will help to protect our communities from fire devastation,” Petrie-Norris said in a prepared statement. “I’m excited that our hard work to secure these funds has been successful at this critical time. If a wildfire breaks out, this pilot program will potentially save lives and infrastructure.”

Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett of the Orange County Board of Supervisors thanked Petrie-Norris for her work to secure funding for the aircraft, which will also provide mutual aid to Los Angeles, Riverside, Ventura and San Diego counties.

“This is going to have a huge impact for our county of Orange,” Bartlett said. “The first-responder intelligence pilot program is going to bring state-of-the-art, military-style technology and intelligence to Orange County so we can advance our response and deployment efficiency.”

Supervisor Don Wagner, who represents several foothill communities that face a heightened threat from wildfires, said the county often lacks funding to pay for equipment, helicopters and overtime pay for firefighters.

“Fighting fires can be very expensive,” Wagner said. “All of those things end up being costly, and, to the extent we can, we try to get more through the grant process.”

California Democrats and Republicans have displayed bipartisan support for providing firefighters with the equipment they need to protect the public.

“Fire doesn’t know any political lines, it doesn’t know any geographic lines, and it doesn’t know racial or ethnic lines,” Wagner said. “It’s a problem that’s common to all of us and it’s one that has no partisan edge to it.”

The Orange County Fire Authority board is scheduled to take action on the contract with Courtney Aviation on Aug. 22.