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New San Diego Technology Allows Firefighters To 'See' Through Wildfire Smoke

September 18, 2012 1:05 p.m.

GUESTS:

Ron Roberts, San Diego County Board of Supervisors, Chair, District 4

Mike Niggli, president and COO, SDG&E

Mike Mohler, CalFire captain and spokesman

Related Story: New San Diego Technology Allows Firefighters To 'See' Through Wildfire Smoke

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, city and county officials have joined together in San Diego today to announce I new wildfire fighting tool. As all San Diegans know, we're entering the height of wildfire season in the county. The device being introduced is a video system that allows aircraft to see through smoke to spot fire and firefighting teams on the ground. Chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, Ron Roberts, welcome. And captain Muller, welcome.

MULLER: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: Mike Nigglia is president and CEO of SDG&E.

NIGGLIA: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What does this new video system do?

MULLER: It is giving us the eyes in the sky that normally we couldn't have for any type of disaster where we need an aerial perspective. Now we have the option to tap into our air attack plane or what people would look at as our spotter plane. This new camera not only gives us a heat signature but we have the opportunity to take that video, put it into what we call our instant command system, and real-time governor the decisions that we make operationally on that fire from an airborne view.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an example of how being able to see the fire through the smoke will actually help firefighters get a handle on the fire?

MULLER: Absolutely. What happens when you have air attack up in the air or spotter plane, if we don't have a visual on our operation, everything is having at a ground level. They're just getting a ground level idea of where the fire is heading, what's ahead of it, what's to the sides of it. Normally if we didn't have that camera, that would be obscured by smoke. The air attack can only do so much. Now we have the opportunity to make those operational decisions at a moment's notice, even if it's obscured by the smoke cloud.

CAVANAUGH: Now, supervisor Roberts, who actually receives this video? How do they get the information that the camera is providing?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, the airborne camera is one of -- now in today's system, many cameras that are out there. SDG&E put dozens of these in place now. But the airborne is really the heart of the system. Those images can be downloaded to any one of mobile command centers. And and the command ras on the ground can actually work the cameras themselves. They can look through the smoke, and the smoke in some cases totally obscures what's going on. They can precisely then direct, whether they're air tankers or helicopters, to precise locations where they want retardant or water dropped. It changes the playing field completely. And this is really what the military has been doing in fighting their battles. There's this situational awareness they refer to it, and they have a much better picture of what the battlefield looks like, and they use their resources -- that's exactly what we're going to be doing here. Not only does it tell them where the fire is, it tells them where the hottest parts of this fire are, and what is lying in the path of that. Because we've coupled this information to a large number of microweather stations that give us wind and humidity and other conditions. So we have a far greater predictive capability, we have a knowing precisely, real-time, where we should be using those resources way, way better than I can share with you, a huge advancement since we saw the fires in 2007.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to ask Mike about all of the cameras that supervisor Roberts was just talking about. One more question though, captain, about this aircraft capability. When there are strong Santa Ana winds, it's been hard to get aircraft up in an area. Are there limitations to this technology?

MULLER: Absolutely. It is mounted to an aircraft. When we see winds in excess of 70 miles an hour, one, the carriage portion of it just to the firefighters in the air. But two, aircraft don't perform in that type of weather. So that would be the limitation. Does the wind itself, if we're up in a Santa Ana driven fire? No, the wind does not affect the connectivity to the ground operations in that aircraft. And the great point, you have to remember this is just one of those tools that we're now introducing. And during a wind-driven fire, this camera is going to give us an opportunity to look at what's ahead of that fire instead of a ground level. Access to neighborhoods, where to place our resources. So the winds can affect it, but it won't affect the camera.

CAVANAUGH: Mike, I believe that SDG&E is using the sunrise power link to help monitor conditions.

NIGGLIA: Absolutely. Technology is the big game changer right here right now. So we have the eye in the sky, we also have installed 29 high-performance, high-resolution cameras that are located on the tops and near the tops of our towers along the sunrise power link which goes through an area that could have a high-fire risk. They can view out 5 miles, they have software that determines do you have a fire of some kind, where is it. We can pan, tilt, and scan every area. Then we download that, and all of that data will go back on the fiber optics system that we built on the sunrise power link. And it connects up with a system that UCSD has put together and goes back to the supercomputer and goes back out to this command system that the captain and Ron Roberts have identified here. That gives you the situational awareness in a very, very meaningful manner in so many different partings of the county. So if you think about it, the technology is expanding our reach and giving us a smart grid of fire protection around San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it's my understanding that SDG&E has contributed about half the cost of this video system, kicked in that amount to make sure that the video monitoring system is working. Why is SDG&E doing that?

NIGGLIA: Well, I think all of us here have a mission related to public safety. We work with materials that are dangerous, electricity and natural gas, we try to make sure we always keep our employees and the public safe. This is one thing we can do to help integrate all of the great technology that supervisor Roberts has been a champion of and pushing the envelope here so we can actually put this in place, and we feel like we're part of the integration of that.

CAVANAUGH: I have to take a little bit of a side road with you, because it was announced that SDG&E has settled its last government claim for damages resulting from the 2007 San Diego wildfires. And so far SDG&E has paid more than a billion dollars for these government claims, federal, state, and county, so forth. Why is SDG&E asking reality payers to pay for the uninsured part of those claims?

NIGGLIA: Well, a lot of it has to go back to the laws in California on strict liability. It's strange, but if a drunk driver hit one of our poles and knocked it down and caused a fire because maybe a transformer became disconnected, we end up having a liability for that. In the eyes of the law, we can spread those costs among everybody, so it's not just one entity or neighborhood that bears the brunt. So it's really steeped in that kind of a concept that we have this strict liability throughout California. So what we have done is asked the public utilities commissioner, will be asking them to allow us to recover the costs that we have not been able to cover through insurance. And we had $1.1 billion of insurance, and we have had other settlements of more than half a billion dollars as well of the so it's only the cost above that that we'll be asking for recovery on.

CAVANAUGH: You must get a lot of input from listeners and ratepayers who are pretty upset about things like this. SDG&E is also asking for a dedicated wildfire balancing account that would for wildfires in the future, and I think you're even asking for it to be made retroactive, in which ratepayers would pay a standard formula for wildfire costs. As you must beR know this has enraged ratepayers. What do you say to those San Diegans who think something like that is outrageous?

NIGGLIA: Well, again, no one wants their rates to go up. No one wants to pay higher prices, but I think it goes back to, how do you end up protects all of San Diego in various ways? From the standpoint of the laws in the State of California, which are a bit unique in this area, we end up with the liability regardless of what causes the event. So somebody else can cause the event, but if our line or a piece of our equipment is the ignition source because they're imperilled it or it's a wind-driven storm that has taken trees and ripped them apart, we end up paying, and therefore that gets spread through all of our customers as sort of a public responsibility.

CAVANAUGH: Let me move on because we are talking about the introduction of this new video system for aircraft and firefighting today. Supervisor Roberts, how much is San Diego spending on wildfire protection this year?

ROBERTS: Well, I don't know that figure. I can tell you that since 2003, San Diego County has spent $250 million-plus, and we're heavily involved in all of these things that are being put in place. I'd like to tell everybody that we're fireproof, but I think the public is smarter than that. We live in a very fire-prone area. We've seen fires raging across Arizona and Colorado and other states here in the news. And we know we've got to continue to do things. What we're doing here now is state of the art. These were systems that the government wouldn't even allow us to put in place five years ago. They were hands-off, this is government technology, you can't do it. And because of a lot of good patterns, SDG&E, CAL FIRE, UCSD, and by the way, we have far more cameras than just on sunrise. We've got cameras all over the place now. But what we want is to do the best possible job of making sure that San Diego County, in each of the cities, is ready, and we're doing everything possible.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Ron Robert, a new report this week from corelogic data research boosts the number of high fire-risk homes in San Diego from 600 to 1,400. Does that surprise you?

ROBERTS: I think the number would be much larger than 1,400.

CAVANAUGH: Well, in those areas of very high fire risk.

ROBERTS: No, that number doesn't surprise me. I would, in my world --

CAVANAUGH: It's larger than that?

ROBERTS: I would think high fire risk when you look at people who are at the edge of open space systems, I remember trying to explain to Senator Feinstein when she was very surprised that Rancho Bernardo was in the City of San Diego, how we had this -- we have done things to create open space systems that are really like a series of wicks that through our urban areas. And we think it's important, and I agree that it is, but we also know that those present in times of extreme weather conditions a real potential fire hazard. So there are things that we've done to ourselves in a sense, and we've inherited really a geography and a climate that's very prone to these types of things happening. And it doesn't make a difference. We've seen in past incidents, it might have been migrants passing through that had a fire that started and got away. We need to do everything that we can for prevention. And we're doing that. Then we need to have systems that give us early as possible detection. And that's what you're seeing here with the cameras in place. Then we need the management if something does break out. And you're seeing another piece of that. And we need the adequate resources. I think the most disappointing thing that happened to me after 2007 was in 2008 when mayor Sanders and I and others sponsored a ballot proposition that would have cost $50 per home per year.

CAVANAUGH: Proposition A.

ROBERTS: Proposition A, and it took a 2/3 vote, and if I recall, we were within less than 2% of that. That would have given us tremendous financial resources that wouldn't have changed where we are today on this system, but it would have given us far more aerial support. We would have seen far more on the ground coverage. Every local fire station? San Diego County would have been augmented, and it would have been millions of dollars each year that would have been lost. And the irony was there were some firefighter groups who didn't support it.

CAVANAUGH: In light of that, we have the situation where there is no county of San Diego fire service. Climatologists are telling us the number of California wildfires have increased and will likely continue increasing in coming years. So captain Muller, what is CAL FIRE going to need to be able to handle the increased threat?

MULLER: Well, actually we do have a county fire authority that is supported by the supervisors, and it's a very aggressive operational undertaking that we're doing right now. And our fire chief --

CAVANAUGH: I meant not a county firefighter operation like in LA.

MULLER: Correct, correct. And as we see, citygate was part of that, and every day we progress farther. But we've increased fire service delivery throughout the county of San Diego areas, not only with what we're talking about today, but with more apparatus the county has put forth money to. Water tenders, we have a whole network of water tenders throughout the county now. We can see that the resources and operations have increased and service delivery has increased. But you have to remember, it's not if we're going to have a large wildfire. It's when. Can we stop every wildfire? No. But I can tell you right now what's happening will make us one of the most prepared and most technological counties that's seen this kind of operation. And it's really going to happen.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you all for talking with us.