As fires rage, California takes steps to integrate technology into wildfire management

In September, even before the October wildfires began to ravage parts of northern and southern California, governor Gavin Newsom announced two contracts totaling nearly $2 million for developing technology to facilitate wildfire detection and emergency decision-making.

The contracts are part of the Wildfire Innovation Sprint, the result of an executive order signed in January by Newsom on his first day of office. The order was designed to jump-start adoption of technological innovations by state agencies.

“The whole idea behind this process was to speed up the tedious bureaucratic processes of our state when it comes to approving contracts and developing newer technology,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Incident Data and Statistics program chief.

One of the Wildfire Innovation Sprint contracts was awarded to Los Angeles-based company Technosylva. The contract grants over $300,000 for creating a software prototype that predicts the spread of a wildfire based on surrounding fuels, topography and weather. Most importantly, the software will allow more time for deploying emergency notifications and evacuation orders.

Northrop Grumman was allocated $1.6 million to develop a wildfire detection system based on remote sensors. Currently, fire detection relies on human vigilance.

“Usually it’s the public…that calls the 9-1-1 system,” said Cal Fire chief of information Scott McLean.

In addition to Northrop Grumman’s planned prototype, Cal Fire works with utility companies across the state to use local wildland surveillance systems to track fires. The agency is currently working with San Diego Gas and Electric to take advantage of the utility’s cameras for better wildfire tracking in southern California.

Cal Fire had already been using technology in the form of social media to notify hundreds of thousands of Californians during emergency situations, and to educate them about disaster preparedness. But there’s a new sense of urgency in adopting technology for wildfire management.

“We are taking…steps as we speak right now to bring technology further into our fold to assist us in these wildfires,” said McLean.

Both Wildfire Innovation Sprint contracts currently cover only Monterey, Butte, San Luis Obispo and Napa counties. The contracts run through the end of the calendar year, at which point Cal Fire will assess the feasibility of the projects for statewide expansion.


  • Irena Fischer-Hwang

    Irena Fischer-Hwang completed her bachelor’s (2011) and master’s degrees (2012) in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received her doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 2019 for her dissertation work on bioinformatics and image compression. She was a producer for the science podcast Goggles Optional from 2016 through 2018. Her curiosity about science communication led her to data journalism at Stanford, and in 2018 she was awarded a Brown Institute for Media Innovation Magic Grant for her data journalism work as part of the Big Local Project team. She is excited to continue integrating her rigorous training in engineering with reporting through data journalism, and hopes to explore a variety of topics including algorithmic bias and accountability, tech privacy and gender equality. Previously, she was an Asian American Journalism Association’s 2018 Voices student program fellow and a 2019 Chips Quinn Scholar. She also serves as a peer editor and writer for NPR Scicommers, and her work has been published by NPR-member radio station KQED and

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