Innovative approach to wildfire prevention in Orinda

An innovative approach to preventing and battling wildfires in the East Bay could become a model for the nation. The town of Orinda is the center of a much larger effort to tame wildfires before they become life and property consuming dragons.

The Moraga-Orinda Fire District, Cal Fire, Contra Costa Fire, East Bay MUD, East Bay Parks and others are clearing grass and brush along a 17-mile known fire corridor to prevent wildfires. With four miles already done, the Orinda Shaded Fuel Break will slow the speed and spread of any fire on the ground while keeping it out of the crowns of trees above. "When you reduce the spread rate of the fire line's intensity, we set the stage to buy time to execute and orderly and effective evacuation," said Chief Dave Winnacker of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District.

But, two Orinda elementary schools, with very limited road access, would take too long to evacuate. The solution: shelter in place. "We're gonna need every gallon we can get our hands," said Chief Winnacker." The safety and security of our students is our number one priority," said Orinda Union Schools Superintendent Dr. Carolyn Seaton. Since both schools live in the historical path of fires, what was decided was that the district would fund two 10,000 gallon tanks one at each of the schools. The idea being, the fire truck hooks up, defends a building that the kids are in and nobody gets hurt. "What that gives us a reliable, known water site dedicated for firefighting," said the Chief.

Arrayed around the schools, a network of remote fire detection sensors, tell firefighters danger is near virtually instantaneously. Zonehaven, a Bay Area software startup that brings together a lot of information such as fire simulation, traffic analysis, real-time weather, and high-resolution fuel modeling, has partnered with San Francisco-based Splunk, to analyze data from heat and humidity sensors along and other data sources to provide situational awareness and evacuation models for the Moraga-Orinda Fire District. The more sources, the better. "The data that is available today, fundamentally enable us re-imagine the whole process of detecting, managing and recovering from fires," said Leonard Stein, Splunk's Global Affairs Chief. Responders and other people in the area will get, real time information, in an easy, but complete form, tailored to their needs. "The deeper we get into this, the greater potential for avoid loss of life, reducing loss of property and preserving critical natural resources," said Mr. Stein. "Obviously, the children are our most precious resource. We want to be able to keep them safe," said Superintendent Seaton.

When the district's insurer saw what the school district had done, it got a $10,000 rebate back on the $65,000 the cost of the water tanks. That's proof that investing in fire prevention can pay off, especially in an area where many homeowners' fire insurance policies are getting canceled.