May 27, 2010 By Russell Nichols
If Los Angeles County officials want to get a jump on suppressing wildfires, they might want to consider ground-based cameras, infrared sensors and surveillance satellites designed to detect missile launches.
These options were among the recommendations made by the county's Quality and Productivity Commission in a report that examines early detection and rapid, all weather 24-hour response systems to suppress forest and brush fires.
In the past several years, wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the region, destroying homes, taking lives and affecting the economy as well as the air quality. The damage doesn't end there. The report attributes the mudslides and flooding caused by the El Niño rainstorms in 2010 to the damage left behind by the Station Fire in 2009. According to the report, total suppression costs of significant county fires between 2007 and 2009 were nearly $145 million.
Directed by the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, the commission conducted research, interviews, presentations and analysis of information for 120 days.
"The recent massive and destructive Station Fire cost local taxpayers $89 million to fight and millions more in infrastructure recovery costs," said Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich in his motion to conduct the study. "The Station Fire graphically spotlights the need to study and identify solutions for establishing an automated early detection system and rapid, all weather, 24-hour response system to suppress forest and brush fires at the source."
This month, the commission released its report, which contains four recommendations on ways to improve the detection and suppression of wildfires:
The commission consulted experts to identify not only the advantages, but also the limitations of some of the options. For example, ground-based systems, the report notes, can use visual surveillance cameras with smoke or flame pattern recognition software, or infrared sensors to detect and locate wildfires. But the number of equipment placements "could be extensive in L.A. County because of the area size and the rugged terrain." Therefore, the commission recommends testing the various surveillance and infrared technologies under field conditions to determine the best sensor placements.
Another surveillance option would use data from satellites designed to support national defense and detect missile launches around the world. Civilian use of the system to detect wildfires was successfully tested in the county in the early 1990s, but funding constraints suspended the test, according to the report.
"The infrared sensors on the satellites constantly look for the telltale signature of a flame from a missile launch with automatic analysis of the data," the report said. "Since a missile flame has characteristics similar to a wildland fire, the system can readily detect fires."