San Diego’s Wildfire Experience Provides an Edge in Disaster-Tracking Tech

Octobers have been cruel to San Diego.

The infamous Cedar Fire started on a Saturday evening, Oct. 25, 2003, and raced more than 30 miles from the Cleveland National Forest into the San Diego suburbs by the next morning. The firestorm destroyed 2,232 homes and killed 15 people before it was contained nine days later. Then there was the Witch fire of 2007, part of a cluster of wildfires that erupted on October 21, killed seven, and destroyed 1,500 homes and forced the evacuation of 500,000 residents throughout San Diego County. That was a bigger evacuation than in New Orleans in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina attained its dubious distinction as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Still, we’re getting better at dealing with firestorms in San Diego—and natural disasters in general—as innovations in sensor technologies, wireless networks, and predictive analytics have helped provide more accurate forecasts and better warnings. And much of the technology is being developed in San Diego.

Earlier this month, for example, San Diego Gas & Electric officials held a press briefing to explain that the utility had spent $1.1 million over the past year to add 93 anemometers (for measuring wind speed) to an existing network of 16 radio-automated weather stations throughout San Diego County. As a result, San Diego County now has the densest network of weather instrumentation in the country, according to Brian D’Agostino, a full-time weather forecaster hired by SDG&E last year.

The increased instrumentation gives SDG&E’s operations center more detailed information about wind conditions in specific locales. Utility regulators allow SDG&E to shut off power to specific transmission lines when local wind speeds exceed 56 mph, according to Dave Geier, SDG&E’s vice president of electric transmission and distribution. Wind speeds above 56 mph increase the odds that blowing debris or swaying trees will bring down a power line, according to utility officials.

A more sophisticated wireless sensor network, such as the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network developed by researchers at UC San Diego, serves as a model of the type of network that could provide even more data, including imagery, that could help in the prediction of and response to disasters, according to Hans-Werner Braun of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Braun says the network demonstrates how a remote sensing systems can be effectively networked throughout remote areas of San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Braun, who is overseeing the project, has described it as a wireless backbone that uses Internet routers on mountaintops, interconnected via wireless links.

Braun, who was the chief network architect for the satellite network conceived by Bellevue, WA-based Teledesic in the 1990s, uses the system for … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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