Article Features by Jonathan Holtzman

Using Big Data to Reduce Catastrophic Impacts of Wildfire
How Local Government Can Help Shape Solutions

Jonathan Holtzman is a partner in Renne Public Law Group and can be reached at Fire Chief Dave Winnacker of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District also contributed to this article; he can be reached at

The threat of wildfires is increasingly on the minds of already crisis-fatigued suburban residents whose communities are near or contain overgrown areas with accumulations of flammable material. This concern is clearly warranted based on recent wildfires, including the devastating fires of fall 2017 and the unprecedented destruction of the 2018 Camp Fire. As Gov. Gavin Newsom has frequently noted, the threat will only continue to grow due to climate change and years of accumulation.

Yet many of our tools for detecting wildfires, modeling their progression, evacuating residents, and suppressing fires are outdated. In the critical early period of a wildfire, existing systems rely far too heavily on subjective judgments made by individuals with inadequate information; these systems are further constrained by long chains of command and the difficulties of interagency emergency communication.

Moraga-Orinda Fire District Takes the Initiative

As regional and state leadership on this issue moved slowly, the Moraga-Orinda Fire District took action to develop solutions. The district recognized that gaps in regional and statewide programs needed to be addressed. Given its proximity to Silicon Valley and the University of California, Berkeley, the district was well-positioned to recruit the power of the tech industry.

Meanwhile, others across the San Francisco Bay Bridge were contemplating the same questions. Two Bay Area tech companies were aware of the threat posed by unprecedented fires and wanted to help but had little expertise in the daily challenges of firefighting in a wildland-urban interface. The companies had three challenges — they lacked on-the-ground experience fighting fires, they needed access to a community in which to realize their ideas, and they lacked governmental authority.

The potential for synergy was clear, but cautionary tales of private industry riding in to save the day and reduce perceived government “inefficiencies” without fully understanding the problem tempered both the companies’ enthusiasm to help and the district’s willingness to accept this assistance.

Partners Tackle the Challenge Collaboratively

The process began with two-way listening sessions in which the parties worked to understand needs and capabilities. These discussions centered on combining best practices with available technology. The fire district’s goal was to seamlessly integrate technology with a real-world operating environment characterized by limited resources and compressed timelines.

Crafting a Solution

The working group’s efforts, supported by the participating tech companies and foundation grants, ultimately produced a number of user-friendly applications. Today, first responders and residents in the Bay Area are using some of these comprehensive, end-to-end solutions that incorporate these elements:

  • Information from satellites and ground-based sensors.
  • A program to determine and display fire speed, direction, and intensity.
  • A user-friendly portal to make these tools available to firefighters in the field.
  • “Evacuation polygons” — predesignated evacuation zones that are triggered at appropriate times to ensure timely, efficient, prioritized movement of residents at greatest risk over the limited surface street capacity found in many older and rural communities.

From the perspective of a resident, this means getting personalized, real-time evacuation recommendations through social media, messaging, and mapping applications.

It’s important to note that virtually all of the individual elements of the technology and data analysis used in this process were readily available; however, they had not been configured for this use and lacked the simple interface required for adoption by first responders in the field. Other uses of existing technology emerging from these discussions include the use of satellite imaging and ground-based lidar (a remote sensing method that generates precise, three-dimensional data) to locate low-cost, high-impact fuel-reduction efforts and remotely trigger lawn sprinklers to slow the spread of fire. And residents with GPS-enabled smartphones can support these efforts by collecting and reporting community information. A community that is engaged in this way has enormous potential to augment the limited numbers of city staff available to support any of these public safety projects.

Looking Ahead

While the collaboration of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and private-sector partners continues with the hope of further developing and adopting these new data-based approaches, the experience so far suggests that even small agencies can engage in productive collaborations with technology companies and act as a laboratory for new ideas and applications. This is perhaps best done at the local level, with the hope that the results of successful experiments will be adopted by the state.

City officials often think that large companies will provide “plug-and-play” solutions. But these companies don’t know the playing field and don’t have the legal authority to mandate approaches that are standardized across jurisdictional boundaries and so urgently needed in areas such as fire technology.

Local government leaders know the problems that need to be solved and what will or won’t work. But they lack the expertise and resources to develop reliable software and hardware, and private-sector companies can bring these to the table. Cities seeking solutions are cautioned to avoid attempting to jury-rig existing, expensive solutions that were not designed with the end users in mind.

Wildfires are getting increasingly larger and more destructive. Budgets are shrinking. Neither of these issues will resolve themselves. Advanced firefighting-focused technology integrates the expertise of our smartest public servants — armed with real-time information — with local response plans and conditions through reliable and user-friendly tools that inform and support the decisionmaking process. These new tools can enhance our ability to respond to fast-moving emergencies and set the stage for effective interagency coordination.

Learn More About This Topic at the 2020 Annual Conference & Expo

Interested in exploring this issue? Don’t miss the “Using Big Data to Reduce Catastrophic Impacts of Wildfire” session at the League of California Cities 2020 Annual Conference & Expo, Oct. 7–9, where you will hear a panel of experts discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with wildfires and big data. Learn how this technology can work in your city. See page 8 for more conference details; to register, visit

Related Resources

Register Now for the Reimagined 2020 Annual Conference & Expo Oct. 7—9

Connecting the Dots on Emergency Preparedness, Recovery and Resilience

Disasters in California: A Brief Overview of Preparedness, Proclamations and Assistance

We Can Outsmart Disaster: Why Local Governments Should Get Involved

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Renne Public Law Group and Moraga-Orinda Fire District