Top Tech for Dealing With Fire Season

For anyone living in what has become known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), wildfires are a growing threat. As communities have spread out, the number of people residing in a WUI has increased dramatically. Coupled with frequent droughts and seasonal strong winds, the result has been some of the deadliest wildfires ever in California and other western states.

The prognosis isn’t improving, and this year fire season has already started early. A new complication is that in order to mitigate the threat of electrical line and transformer-related fires, utilities have started proactively turning off power to potential trouble spots before a fire occurs. That can make keeping informed a challenge. Even if you’re not in an area likely to suffer a wildfire, you may wind up feeling its effects in the form of drift smoke.

There are plenty of great articles on the general steps to take to get ready for a fire, and for evacuating when there’s a fire danger. One of my favorite sites is provided by the California Fire Safety Council. In this article, we’ll highlight some of the technology you can make use of depending on your own situation, to help you prepare for and potentially cope with imminent danger from wildfire.

View of the CZU Complex fire from the hills behind our house. -- photo by David Cardinal

View of the CZU Complex fire from the hills behind our house. — photo by David Cardinal

Know Your Zone: Evacuation Is Trickier Than It Looks

One of the lessons learned in recent, deadly fires is that the process of evacuating a large number of people spread out through a fire zone is very error-prone. Traditionally, evacuation warnings and orders were often based on the street, town, or even waterway boundaries, so in some cases, people didn’t know whether they were subject to an evacuation order. Similarly, multiple agencies had different maps, and differing amounts of local knowledge, so there was plenty of room for confusion.

Startup Zonehaven (now part of Genasys) is working hard to change that. They have cooperated with local and county-level governments throughout much of California and in some other Western states to establish a unified system of numbered evacuation zones. Those zones are then made public on the Zonehaven website, promoted to residents, and used by fire, police, and emergency services in the event of an evacuation emergency. This could be fire, tsunami, or an industrial accident; for our purposes, it proved effective during the disastrous CZU fire in the hills above Santa Cruz, along with some of the others last fire season.

Current evacuation and fire information by Zone for areas around the 2,600 acre River Fire. Image courtesy of ZoneHaven

Current evacuation and fire information by Zone for areas around the 2,600 acre River Fire. Image courtesy of ZoneHaven.

In addition to a public-facing site for residents, Zonehaven has done extensive fire modeling and provides a tool for emergency responders to get the best available data on where and when a fire is likely to spread. They get this data using the same zones used for evacuation, so they can use it to decide on the timing of evacuation warnings and orders.

Keep an Eye on Air Quality

With the increasing incidence of fires, monitoring air quality using EPA or crowd-sourced websites has become extremely popular. If you’re new to the task, we published an air quality explainer last fire season. The good news is that there are now so many sensors out there that you can get a decent reading for your community without splurging on a Purple Air or similar. But you may want to take the next step. We purchased a mid-range hand-held air quality meter from Temtop, called the LKC-1000S+, that we can take with us. It was surprisingly useful, as we found that the AQI can vary quite a bit in our local area, even moving just a few blocks, or depending on changes in the wind.

I wasn't quick enough to grab a photo when our AQI went to 999 but the air was almost unbreathable even at 600 plus in our frontyard during the worst of the smoke

I wasn’t quick enough to grab a photo when our AQI went to 999, but the air was almost unbreathable even at 600 plus in our front yard during the worst of the smoke.

Air Filters Can Help With Your Indoor Air Quality

One handy use for a portable AQI device is the ability to measure the AQI in various rooms of your home and office. In particular, even with doors and windows closed, several days of smoke outside is enough to start to make indoor air unhealthy. In our home, we use Coway air filters on an “as needed” basis (which last fire season was an unfortunately large number of days). We showed a bit of what air purifiers can do in this article, although that piece was aimed at using them to potentially reduce COVID-19 hazards, we do show a bit of what they can do in this piece.

For outdoors or if the smoke inside gets bad, the same N95 (or better) masks that many have been using for COVID-19 protection will also work to keep smoke particles out. In this case, you can even use the easier-breathing models with outflow valves, as for smoke the only concern is what you’re breathing in.

Keep Communication From Being Your Fatal Problem

Pre-planned power shutoffs are a relatively new development. While they may be effective at preventing fires, they’ve had the unintended consequence of shutting off power to as many as a million people for long periods of time. Aside from being unpleasant in what is likely to be a heatwave, it meant a lot of dead phones, TVs, and radios. At some point cell sites also started to fail. So if you’re anywhere near a high-wind area, you’ll want to have a solid communication and backup plan.

Websites aren’t much good if you can’t get to them. Fortunately, many internet providers (and telephone landlines) have systems in place that can keep them running even during a power outage. However, you’ll still need to have power to your router, cable modem, and at least one device you can use to access the web. In our experience, a 1500 volt-amp (VA) UPS on our router and cable modem would give us 1-2 hours of solid cable internet. Unfortunately, if an outage is going to last several days, it would take a closet full of those or a whole-home battery like a Tesla Powerwall or LG Chem to handle the situation.

Jackery Portable UPS + Solar Is a Win for Peace of Mind

Jackery Explorer 1500So this year we’ve been getting ready with a Jackery Explorer 1500 (1500 watt-hours) and four of the company’s 100-watt solar panels. Although expensive at $1,500 (plus around $250 per panel), the unit offers some important advantages over a traditional desktop UPS. First, the battery is a durable Li-Ion, so you can use it repeatedly and for years without needing to replace the battery modules the way you would with the typical lead-acid versions. We have a smaller E500 that we’ve used successfully on many occasions. It also supports a solar panel, but we felt it wasn’t beefy enough to deal with the kind of power outages we’ve been having during fire season. Both models are designed to be used often, with a carrying handle, informative display, and plenty of power output options, including USB-A, USB-C, and 110v AC.

I found that the panels can indeed produce nearly 100 watts each. Starting from 0 percent charged, on a sunny day here in California, I could almost charge the E1500 by leaving it out for a full day attached to two solar panels. If I’d attached all four, I could have powered our router, cable modem, and a laptop while recharging it at the same time. There’s no way that would work with a typical lead-acid battery UPS of the same rated capacity. Competitor Generark has announced a similar device (the HomePower 2) that looks impressive on paper, but we haven’t received a review unit to test in time for this article, so I’m not sure if they’re actually available yet.

Of course, no matter how informed you are, and how ready you are to deal with smoke, sometimes the only recourse will be to evacuate, so having a plan for that, including a checklist and “go bag” is key.

Image credits: PurpleAir, ZoneHaven, David Cardinal

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