GRASS VALLEY, Calif. June 30, 2023 – Governor Gavin Newsom and state fire officials were at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base (GVAAB) yesterday to highlight new technology being deployed ahead of peak fire season. In addition to having the largest aerial firefighting fleet in the world on standby and the most firefighters in state history, California is deploying new tools – including AI, satellites, cameras, drones, real-time intelligence, and more – to fight fire faster and smarter, the Governor’s communication team stated.

Intel 12, one of the Fire Integrated Real Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) planes at the GVAAB on June 29, 2023.
Intel 12, one of the Fire Integrated Real Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) planes at the GVAAB on June 29, 2023. Photo: YubaNet

District 3 Supervisor Lisa Swarthout joined the state officials and welcomed the new additions to both the state and county toolbox, stating “The County is extremely pleased that Governor Newsom chose Nevada County and the Grass Valley Air Attack Base to of kick off peak fire season. It’s nice to know that the state has really taken this seriously and it appears a lot of resources are coming.” She mentioned the $1.7 million dollar CAL FIRE grant awarded to Nevada County. “That will really help with a lot of issues that we have in Nevada County regarding fire breaks and evacuation routes. So, happy to be here and looking forward to the next steps.”

CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler, Supervisor Lisa Swarthout, Governor Gavin Newsom and CAL FIRE Chief Helicopter pilot Ben Berman
CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler, Supervisor Lisa Swarthout, Governor Gavin Newsom and CAL FIRE Chief Helicopter pilot Ben Berman. Photo: YubaNet

Cal OES Director Nancy Ward emphasized her agency’s commitment to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by more frequent natural disasters affecting the state, from wildfires to drought, atmospheric rivers, flooding and more. “Our state has made historic investments in science, technology and personnel that allow us to detect new fires in real time.”

Cal OES Director Nancy Ward
Cal OES Director Nancy Ward at GVAAB. Photo: YubaNet

CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler started his remarks by thanking the Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit of CAL FIRE and the Tahoe National Forest for their welcome here at the GVAAB and the Interagency Emergency Command Center. He provided an outlook on peak fire season after exceptional precipitation this winter. The atmospheric rivers and snow accumulations have led to abundant grass and brush growth. “This can lead to an obvious temptation to think that the wet weather has abated or at least delayed the risk of wildfire across California. But the facts are more complicated than that, and I’m going to put it into perspective. In 2017, we had the same conditions early on, and then in late 2017, there was significant wind coupled with dried vegetation that burned over 1.5 million acres. 47 lives were lost in 2017, and almost 11,000 structures were destroyed in those fires, largely in the North Bay and the Napa Valley.” [Editor’s note: Also the Wind Complex in Nevada County.]

Tyler continued, “just last week, CAL FIRE had over 300 wildfires that we supported across the state. As the 4th of July is quickly approaching, I’m asking each of you to be mindful of how quickly a fire can have devastating consequences. It’s not a question of if. It’s a matter of when that fire is going to strike. And it’s extremely important that we are all prepared as we enter the holiday weekend and throughout the 2023 fire year. The California Fire Service is relying on you to help reduce the risk of wildfires across the state and the damage and destruction that they do. So we ask that you work to create a minimum of 100ft of defensible space clearance around your structures, but we also ask that you do that during a time of day that won’t likely ignite a wildfire. Have your addresses clearly marked on your home, because when seconds counts, seconds count. We need to be able to find you, create an evacuation plan, and have go bags and most importantly, listen to our fire and law enforcement partners when they ask you to evacuate. Your life and ours will depend on it.”

CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler, Governor Newson with CAL FIRE NEU firefighters.
CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler, Governor Newson with CAL FIRE NEU firefighters. Photo: YubaNet

CAL FIRE Chief Helicopter Pilot Benjamin Berman introduced the Firehawk.” It’s an honor and privilege to be here today and introduce you to Cal Fire’s newest rotary wing aerial resource, the S-70, right here behind us. It’s called the S-70 Cal Firehawk. Built by Lockheed Martin Sikorski, it’s outfitted by United Rotorcraft and offers the state 300% increase in fire suppressant capacity and 30% faster delivery of that fire suppressant.”

CAL FIRE's Firehawk. Photo: YubaNet
CAL FIRE’s Firehawk at GVAAB. Photo: YubaNet

Governor Newsom highlighted several new tools and partnerships, including:

  • The state is working with Lockheed Martin to explore the potential of incorporating Department of Defense-grade technology to fight wildfires. CAL FIRE is focusing on drone-based software, AI-enabled tools, analytics, and capabilities to provide analysis of ground and atmospheric conditions in near real-time, as well as persistent communications capabilities to fire personnel on the ground during response activities.
  • Low-Earth Orbit Satellites: The state is also working with the Environmental Defense Fund on low-earth orbit satellite technology. CAL FIRE is currently working on a potential partnership to formalize our ability to be involved in providing user input and feedback during system development, analyze sample and initial data from the system, and advance our knowledge of satellite-based detection for wildland firefighting including wildland-urban interface fires, prescribed fire, and more.
  • Technosylva wildfire projection tool: The result of the state’s first innovation sprint in 2019, using the X-prize concept, this is an on-demand wildfire spread prediction tool to support operational response, what-if scenario analysis, and wildfire risk forecasting.
  • FireGuard partnership with the Department of Defense: Working with the California Guard and the Pentagon, the state trailblazed the development and implementation of satellite capabilities to detect, analyze and map new wildfire ignitions, which was just extended to support Canada’s wildfire response. 
  • CalGuard’s remotely-piloted aircraft: Since 2019, the Defense Secretary has authorized using the California National Guard’s remotely piloted aircraft for rapid aerial mapping and assessment of wildfires.
  • LiDAR investments: The state’s investments have collected approximately 30 million acres of new LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which uses a remote sensing method to make a detailed 3-D map of the current topography and vegetation for every high fire risk region of California.
  • FireHawk night-capable helicopters: Faster with greater capacity to carry water, these helicopters allow CAL FIRE to conduct night flight operations. The initial fleet of 12 is being expanded to 16. 
  • Wildfire Threat Intelligence Center (WFTIC): Serves as California’s integrated central organizing hub for wildfire forecasting, weather information, threat intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination. WFTIC also coordinates wildfire threat intelligence and data sharing among federal, state, local agencies, tribal governments, utilities, other service providers, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

“All these things, again, didn’t exist just a few years ago. The tools and technology being utilized here in the state of California like in no other jurisdiction that we know of in the United States. There’s a reason people come from around the globe to learn about the work that Cal Fire is doing, the mutual aid system, and the work that they’re doing on our integration center,” the Governor said.

Governor Gavin Newsom at GVAAB on June 29, 2023.
Governor Gavin Newsom at GVAAB on June 29, 2023. Photo: YubaNet

He concluded his remarks by saying, “You heard the Chief mention some of those progress as it relates to defensible spaces, as it relates to individuals in the wildland urban interface. But more broadly in terms of total number of acres that we are actively managing in our forest, we have more work to do in that space. We recognize the scale and magnitude of the neglect over the past and we are significantly increasing our efforts here in the state with our federal and private partners. I’ll close with a reminder: the State’s wildlands represent roughly 3% of all the wildlands in California. The vast majority are private hands and the federal government. And this is incredibly important point to make. This is about mutual aid. Yes, we have best mutual aid system in the world. But it’s also about mutual responsibility, and the state cannot do all of that alone and I want to thank our private partners. We created some new liability insurance grants to help support some more efforts on prescribed burns and the work that we’re doing in concert, in collaborative spirit. And again, want to thank our federal partners that have done a remarkable job investing in unprecedented support in this state to actively manage our forests as well.”

Governor Newsom, flanked by Northern Region Chief George Morris, CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler, CAL FIRE NEU Chief Brian Estes with NEU firefighters at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base on June 29, 2023.
Governor Newsom, flanked by Northern Region Chief George Morris, CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler, CAL FIRE NEU Chief Brian Estes with NEU firefighters at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base on June 29, 2023. Photo: YubaNet

Read our upcoming story on Grass Valley’s Emergency Command Center as one of five State dispatch centers currently testing AI-assisted new fire start recognition on the ALERTCalifornia camera system. Special thanks to NEU Unit Chief Brian Estes for the tour of the Emergency Command Center (ECC) and all the personnel in the ECC, the first first responders.

See more of the tools and tech featured during Thursday’s event in the stories below.