Inside the Tech Center That Keeps Firefighting at the Cutting Edge
Here's a sobering idea during one of the most destructive fire seasons in memory: Over the next few decades, climate change is expected to supercharge fire risk in California. Researchers think summers will be hotter and drier, increasing the potential for big blazes.
One study by the research group Climate Central predicts that by 2050, the number of high-risk fire days in the state will jump by a fifth, from 120 a year to 145. Add that to the fact that right now, there are 11 million Californians living in fire-prone areas.
With this looming threat ahead, what are firefighters doing to prepare?
Blowing up hoses for starters, said Sam Wu, project leader with the San Dimas Technology and Development Center.
The center is a sprawling 18-acre campus owned by the U.S. Forest Service in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It's where the future of firefighting is being developed and tested.
Wu and his team push trucks, pumps and hoses to their limits. On a typical day, they might pump a hose with as much as 1,200 pounds per square inch of water pressure, four times what your normal firehose experiences.
Then they'll drop hot metal cubes on it to see how well the material withstands being struck by a burning ember.
Pretty often the hoses explode.
"Last year we bought over 6,600 miles of firehose," he added. "That's a lot of firehose."
It's all in service of making sure firefighters have the toughest, safest and most effective gear when battling blazes.
The San Dimas Technology and Development Center was founded just after World War II.
"The government was looking at repurposing excess military equipment to use for domestic firefighting efforts," Wu said.
The Forest Service took trucks, planes and even helicopters and turned them into tools for fighting fire.
In the 1960s, the center started designing better fire engines that could climb steep hills without tipping over. Today it's still tweaking the design, strengthening cabs so trucks that roll over won't crush passengers.
It also helped develop special filters that stop fire-causing sparks from flying out of the exhaust systems of motorcycles and chainsaws. And it pioneered standards for the use of planes that drop fire retardant.
These days, the center is working on helping the Forest Service switch its fleet of fire tankers from propeller planes to jets.
Even though jets are old hat to commercial airlines, converting them to firefighting safety standards has taken time. Making sure these new planes drop the right amount of retardant in the right place is key.
The latest models are piloting a newly developed tanker door system to evenly spread that signature orange goo.
It's worth the effort, said test pilot Brent Connor.
He's been flying and fighting fires for more than 30 years. One thing he likes about the new jets is the speed. Last year he was able to zip from a fire in Fairbanks, Alaska, to another fire in Wendover, Nevada, in roughly four hours.
"In the older airplanes, depending on what that was, that could have been a six to 10-hour flight," he said.
One big part of firefighting is dealing with, well, a lot of fire. How do you do that in a controlled setting to test crucial gear without accidentally burning down your lab?
The center just recently purchased a new burn simulator. It's a machine that can create a large and controlled fire, perfect for seeing how much heat new equipment can take.
It's the first of its kind in the country and cost around $350,000. The simulator is capable of generating a wall of fire 47 feet long. The center plans to use it to evaluate the toughness of trucks and other firefighting equipment.
The center also evaluates new firefighting tools developed elsewhere, like the Personal Alert and Tracking System (PATS) created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Department of Homeland Security.
It's a combination monitor and communication device that can send alerts across several miles of wilderness, even when there’s no cell reception, said Ed Chow, project leader for the system.
That means it can let firefighters know if a blaze is headed their way. It can also keeps tabs on where team members are. It monitors their vital signs and even senses if one falls down a slope and needs help.
Chow said the San Dimas Center tested the system and gave feedback on everything from the display to the batteries, which at first were fancy lithium ion.
"And then firefighters say they only use AA-batteries ... all the equipment uses AA-batteries," he laughed. He switched to AA after that.
Right now, the system is just a prototype, but it could one day be a crucial tool.
Still, new technology alone won't be enough to curb the growing threat of wildfire, said Tom Scott, a natural resource specialist based at UC Riverside.
"There’s some point where the concept that you have gear that’s going to save you is irrelevant," Scott said. "That’s not going to happen because the fires are going to be too intense and people are going to die."
Scott thinks research and forest management are also a key part of reducing fire risk.
He stresses the need to think critically about where homes are built since in Southern California, people are by far the number one cause of fire. At the same time, we continue to develop communities in fire-prone areas.
Sam Wu with the San Dimas center knows that the threat of wildfire grows year by year. He tries not to let it stress him out.
"We hope that we are putting ourselves in a position where we can handle that stuff," he said. "We need to refine the things that we do and think of it on a bigger scale in terms of how we can help firefighters."
Wu and his team will keep looking for new ways to keep people safe, no matter how many exploded hoses it takes.
This story is part of Forever Fire Season, KPCC’s in-depth coverage of the new reality of year-round fire season in Southern California. Over the next few weeks we’ll cover those affected by the summer’s destructive wildfires and efforts to develop better firefighting tools and reduce the risk of property damage.