Fighting Fire With Data

SCE’s wildfire science team uses the fire behavior triangle of weather, topography and fuels to provide precision data.

With nearly 30 years of experience tailing fires all over the state, Southern California Edison’s wildfire scientist, Tom Rolinski, has gotten pretty good at predicting their behavior.

He is responsible for
building and maturing SCE’s fire science program, which includes modeling fire behavior, producing seasonal outlooks and advising on strategic mitigation efforts.

“A big part of the job is bolstering our situational awareness and
grid hardening work. We help with the decisions on where to harden and what kind of hardening we should be doing,” said Rolinski about SCE’s work to strengthen electrical equipment.

Tom Rolinski is SCE's leading expert on fire science, he uses his nearly 30 years of experience to help SCE strategic wildfire mitigation.
Tom Rolinski is SCE's expert on fire science. He uses his nearly 30 years of experience to help SCE with strategic wildfire mitigation.

The three-person fire science team focuses on developing tools and metrics to assess fire potential daily, monthly and seasonally. Once they identify areas of concern, SCE will take that information and increase its wildfire mitigation and vegetation management efforts around those locations in high fire risk areas.

team’s latest focus is refining the data used to determine the criteria for what the fire science team calls the fire behavior triangle: weather, topography and fuels.

“We are continually incorporating more advanced fuels information in a comprehensive way to determine fire potential,” Rolinski said. “When we think about the behavior of fires, we look at things like flame length and fire intensity. Those kinds of aspects of how a fire burns are important because that determines the size, how suppressible it will be and what kind of impact it might have on a community.”

The team, along with other fire agencies, goes out every two weeks to sample the live vegetation, collecting data on
fuel moisture needed for modeling. “As we collect more and more data, the models become better and better,” Rolinski said. “What we’ve observed over the last four decades is a slow progression of fuel dryness.”

Over the last 40 years, the number of days that fuels are receptive to fire has grown.
Over the last 40 years, the number of days that fuels are receptive to fire has grown.

Rolinski says, while it’s not dramatic, it is a distinguishable change in the four decades of historical data that goes back to 1980. That means over the last 40 years, the number of days that fuels are receptive to fire has grown.

“Everything that we do in fire science is dependent on a good historical fire data set. It’s how we relate weather and fuel conditions to fire activity and how we calibrate our metrics,” Rolinski said.

One of the big projects the team is working on now is implementing an updated historical fire data set, information that outlines all the exact
locations of fires that have occurred in SCE’s service area since 1992. The current set is limited to the year 2017.

The new data will be a blend of agency-reported ignitions and satellite-detected ignitions, technology that has increased so much so that scientists can look now at how fires are growing as often as every hour.

“Fires are just getting bigger and bigger and what I've always wondered was, ‘well, is this an anomaly or a trend?’ and we don't know yet because we’re in the midst of it now,” he said. “It's going to be really interesting to see how the new data might change some of the modeling.

“This is going to be a game changer for us.”

For more information on our wildfire mitigations efforts,