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New technology propels efforts to fight Western wildfires

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As drought- and wind-driven wildfires have become more dangerous across the American West in recent years, firefighters have tried to become more competent in how they prepare.

They’re using new technology and better positioning of resources in a bid to keep small blazes from erupting into mega-fires like the ones that torched a record 4% of California last year or the nation’s biggest wildfire this year that has charred a section of Oregon half the size of Rhode Island.

There have been 730 more wildfires in California this year than last, an increase of about 16%. But nearly triple the area has burned — 470 square miles (1,200 square kilometers).

Catching fires more quickly gives firefighters a better chance of keeping them small.

That includes using new fire behavior computer modeling that can help assess risks before fires start, then project their path and growth. When “critical weather” is predicted — hot, dry winds or lightning storms — the technology, on top of hard-earned experience, allows California planners to pre-position fire engines, bulldozers, aircraft, and hand crews armed with shovels and chain saws in areas where they can respond more quickly.

With the computer modeling, “they can do a daily risk forecast across the state, so they use that for planning,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, California’s firefighting agency.

That’s helped Cal Fire hold an average of 95% of blazes to 10 acres (4 hectares) or less even in poor conditions driven by drought or climate change, she said. So far this year, it’s held 96.5% of fires below 10 acres (4 hectares).

Federal firefighters similarly track how dry vegetation has become in certain areas. Station crews and equipment ahead of lightning storms or in places where people gather during holidays, said Stanton Florea, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

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