The following is a contributed article by Elizaveta Malashenko, Deputy Executive Director for Safety and Enforcement at the California Public Utilities Commission.
California is a global leader in technology, so it stands to reason that we're focusing more on technological solutions to help overcome the growing threat from frequent and deadly wildfires.
Over the past two years, California has endured a number of epic megafires. More than 120 people have been killed, nearly two million acres burned, and thousands of homes and other structures destroyed.
Now, as the state anxiously awaits another potentially deadly fire season, some say climate change and years of drought have brought us a "new normal" where terrible wildfire disasters are a regular occurrence.
I understand the sentiment, but as Deputy Executive Director for Safety and Enforcement at the California Public Utilities Commission, "new normal" is a characterization I cannot accept.
Technology companies have long proclaimed that their innovations can help address some of society's toughest challenges. Along the way, there have been more than a few successes. Our cars pollute less today because of advances in fuel and automotive technology. Technological breakthroughs in health care have helped people live longer and better.
An existential threat
We now have an urgent new opportunity to use technology to help solve a problem that represents an existential threat to California's well-being in the presence of deadly wildfires.
That's why the CPUC teamed up recently with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and other partners to host the state's first Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit on the campus of California State University, Sacramento.
For two busy days in March, researchers, scientists, academics, utility executives and other experts from across the United States, Australia, Canada and other countries exchanged ideas on using artificial intelligence, big data and analytics, enhanced weather monitoring and other technological innovations to help prevent, fight and mitigate wildfires.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, acknowledged technology's vital role in this effort when he signed an executive order on his first full day in office to establish what he called an "Innovation Procurement Sprint." For fire detection, he said, the goal is to make sure we have the most effective, cutting-edge technology in the hands of emergency responders by next fire season.
The Governor also acknowledged our Summit last month when he released his report on "Wildfires and Climate Change: California's Energy Future." Among other things, the report called for greater investments in technology and innovation to mitigate the wildfire risk, including:
- Statewide deployment of weather stations and cameras paired with meteorology and fire behavior modeling;
- Artificial Intelligence-based visual recognition technology to analyze satellite imagery to determine fuel conditions and vegetation risks in proximity to utility lines;
- Fire modeling tools to support all fire departments and emergency responders across the state;
- Machine learning and automation inspections for increased safety assurance and regulatory compliance;
- Widespread adoption of aerial patrols, LIDAR and advanced imaging for vegetation management and utility infrastructure inspections
The utilities regulated by the CPUC are moving in this direction, too. Just this week, the CPUC issued a series of proposed decisions, after an expedited review of new Wildfire Mitigation Plans submitted by the state's privately-owned utilities that include some of the technology showcased at the Summit, including more sophisticated weather stations, high-definition digital cameras and advanced fault sensors. The full Commission is scheduled to consider the plans at its May 30 voting meeting in San Francisco.
Different expertise and perspectives
When the steering committee we established to plan our Summit began identifying possible presenters and panelists, we focused on the importance of bringing together people of different perspectives and areas of expertise.
We invited firefighters and other first responders. We reached out to policymakers and elected officials. Academics and tech company innovators were included. So were the utilities, climate scientists and data and analytics experts. This mix of perspectives is what made this event unique.
Over the course of the Summit, more than 700 people compared best practices. We learned from one another and shared success stories from other states and nations, digging into how they could be applied to California.
People in California take tremendous pride in the talent and courage of our brave men and women who fight fires at CAL FIRE and other firefighting companies. But the truth is we have maxed out the standard methods of addressing the problem.
Our state has done everything we know how to do when it comes to fighting fires. We still attack them with boots on the ground, water, fire lines, aircraft, bulldozers and fire-fighting techniques that are tried and true.
But as the last two years in California have shown, that's no longer enough. We need technology's help processing the amount of information and data required to get us to the next stage of knowing what to do and how to address it.
More aggressive risk management
At the Summit, we heard about "big data" solutions related to vegetation management, advanced analytics, machine learning paired with data coming from sensors, aerial patrols, LiDAR, and other advanced surveying techniques. Expanded use of technology can enable utilities to have more aggressive risk management programs so firefighters are not needed in the first place.
New technologies on the ignition-prevention side are also being deployed, such as fault detection and isolation technology. And there are many examples of infrastructure hardening, such as increasing wire-to-wire clearances and pole replacement programs. Some utilities are also starting to use coated conductors, which have been deployed on the East Coast to enhance reliability.
When it comes to ignition control, the main concern is with utility equipment itself as the cause of the fire, such as sparks from electric infrastructure. The risk of ignition can be reduced by making utility assets less likely to fail and identifying issues more quickly when they do arise.
California utilities are installing better weather networks that collect finely detailed wind, temperature, humidity and fuel moisture information to enhance their awareness of what's happening near electric lines. They are also using digital modeling of wildfire behavior and high-tech tools for better vegetation management and safer electric generating.
These approaches showcased at our Summit are the backbone of an advanced technology we need to apply as widely as possible. That's how we can leapfrog into the future and make sure that the deadly wildfires of recent years are not a macabre new normal that we cannot overcome. If I didn't believe we could overcome this threat, I'd be in a different line of work.
I was greatly encouraged by the response to our Summit and what was presented there. Interest in attending was so high that we had a waitlist of more than 250 people. We were able to set up an overflow room where people could watch on closed circuit television because the conference hall was filled to capacity. We also recently posted a conference video on our You Tube site for those wanting to watch the proceedings now and into the future.
Our challenge now is to take what we learned at the Summit and translate it into policy and best practices, which would go a long way toward improving our ability to deal with the wildfire threat that's surely not going away. It will also provide another way for California to expand its role as a global leader, which is why we're already starting to have conversations about what it will take to convene an even better and more productive Summit next year.