Reporting Paul Magers
LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — For a select number of firefighters, there’s more to battling blazes than being on the front lines.
Orange County Fire Authority firefighters like Capt. Don Bousier and paramedic Jeff Shelton rely on science.
“It is very calculated,” Don Bousier said. “Look at it and identify between all the different components involved, whether it be slope, aspect, elevation, fuel type, weather, where this fire is going.”
It’s a natural phenomenon that plays like a mental slideshow etched into the minds of those taking on mother nature.
“Satellite imagery, using infrared technology, to understand a natural phenomenon,” Shelton said. “When you show up at a base camp that’s the first thing everybody wants to know, is the internet up.”
Combining technology with history and enhancing geo-spatial analysis with mapping, they’re a sub-breed of firefighters in Southern California who analyze fire behavior from the ground up.
Capt. Drew Smith and firefighter specialist Jeff Wilson of L.A. County Fire are fire behavior analysts, and their job is to get inside the “mind” of the fire.
“The challenging part is probably being correct. You’re trying to predict fire behavior based on fuel, weather, topography,” Wilson said.
While Smith and Wilson can predict fairly accurately how fires behave within a 24-hour period – as they did for the raging Sesnon fire in 2008 – treacherous long burning fires, such as the 2010 Keene complex fires and the west fires in Kern County in 2011, demand long-term analysts like Bousier and Shelton.
“I would take it from there and look at three days again, 30 days and three months out to program the computer to tell me what time frame we have with this fire,” Bousier said.
“I see my computer as a tool that is similar to any other tool we use out on the fire line,” Shelton explained. “The more you use these tools, the more intuitive they become.”
And tuning into that sixth sense doesn’t come easy: it all culminates at the National Advanced Fire Institute in Tucson, Arizona, where the most advanced level fire behavior class is taught.
“If you say, ‘Hey, I want to be a fire behavior analyst,’ it will take you at least 10 to 12 years just to get to the 590 course, because you have to have a lot of qualifications to get accepted,” Capt. Smith said.
“So few people that reach that level,” Wilson explained. “It’s pretty awe-inspiring these are your peers and they have the same passion as you have.”
“The training we received in Arizona was the perfect simulation for what we experience out in the field,” Shelton expressed. “You have time pressure which is the main problem.”
They’ll tell you the best information is given on time, rather than the best information given too late.
“It’s a passion. You’re constantly educating yourself,” Bousier said.
“There has to be a link between your brain and your heart. Once you have more fire seasons under your belt, you slip back to that slide carousel you have back in your head,” Smith described.
“You get surprised every fire you go on and you capture that and go wow,” he said. “They call it wild fire because that’s a true statement.”