SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Another red flag warning comes just as Cal Fire's nearest retardant tanker base officially opened for peak season with a number of calls and crew training for what's shaping up to be a furious fire season.
Air power has never been more key to suppressing small fires before they turn into firestorms. Cal Fire's Sonoma Air Attack Base at Santa Rosa Airport officially opened peak fire season Monday with the local training of ground crews as well as a tanker pilots.
The third consecutive drought year assures that all Cal Fire tanker plane, helicopters and spotter aircraft statewide will be busy well into the fall if not early winter. "This year, with all the late rains we've had, we do have quite a bumper grass crop which is not good for fires. If there's anything ahead of it as far as homes or heavier fuels that it can get into, it acts as a kindling and gets those heavier fuels going. One little spark can start quite the conflagration," said Captain Nick Welch of the Cal Fire Sonoma Fire Attack Base.
The constantly evolving and improving AlertWildfire Camera Network, is now almost a thousand cameras strong in California alone. AlertWildfire looks with unblinking eyes, 24/7/365, on virtually every major vista in the state where wildfires do or could arise. "This is one of the largest networks in the world," said Professor Neal Driscoll of the UC San Diego ALERTWildfire consortium. "It's a game changer," said Captain Welch.
AlertWildfire verifies smoke or fire to technicians instantaneously. Decisions that usually took a half hour or more to get "a battalion out there, an engine to verify. we can now do that in minutes," said Professor Driscoll. "Dispatch centers are able to control these cameras. They rotate 360 degrees. They can zoom in and out and we're able to get better intel quicker on these fires with these cameras," said Captain Welch.
PG&E has alone has already erected 525 of those high definition cameras in its territory; 600 by year's end. "That will give us and everybody visibility in 90% of all our high fire threat areas in central and northern California," said PG&E Public Information Officer Deanna Contreras.
Though a lot of money is being put into these systems, new aircraft and more personnel, compared to the costs of conflagrations like the Tubbs Fire and the Camp Fire, it is literally cheap insurance for California.