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Utility meteorologist is fighting California fire risk with an unrivaled ally

November 18, 2019

To get early warnings of California fire potential, Brian D’Agostino has helped San Diego Gas & Electric build the largest utility-owned weather network in the world.

Brian DAgostino surrounded by meteorologists
Photo courtesy of San Diego Gas & Electric

Brian D’Agostino’s career reflects the rising threat of wildfires. Graduating with a degree in meteorology in 2002, he worked for a TV station in Missoula, Montana, and lived with firefighters. “Fire is a big deal up in Montana, and I learned the basics, which helped me get my first interview at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E),” D’Agostino said.

The utility hired him as its first weather adviser after a devastating 2007 wildfire season. Next, he became SDG&E’s first meteorologist, then its first senior manager of meteorology. Today, he is SDG&E’s first director of Fire Science and Climate Adaptation. Along the way, he has helped build the largest utility-owned weather network in the world. In a Q&A, he shared how utilities and meteorologists can play a role in wildfire resilience.

Q: Your roles are unprecedented at SDG&E, and perhaps any utility. What is your mission?

A: The mission is to understand fire weather better, particularly the seasonal Santa Ana winds that raise the risk of wildfires here, and to integrate real science into mitigating fire risk. So in 2010, we built the largest utility weather network in the world. We put weather stations in fire risk areas to measure sustained winds and wind gusts. We are now at 177 weather stations in an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

The network is modeled on a nationwide network that fire agencies have, known as RAWS: Remote Automated Weather Stations. Each measures wind speed at a 20-foot height, versus the standard (higher) 10-meter height at airport weather stations. That can make a significant difference in understanding fire potential, especially when dealing with mountainous terrain like we have.

Santa Ana winds work like rapids in a river. When they go over a mountain, rapids form downwind of mountain peaks. When we started putting weather stations into the rapids’ areas, we were measuring winds that were two and three times as strong as what we were measuring at airports in the area.

Q: What other factors do you look at to predict fire risk?

A: Fuel moisture. Most of us have gone to build a campfire and when we try to light the branches we’ve collected, they just smoke. The reason is high fuel moisture content. All the heat is going into evaporating the water versus combusting the material. You need to understand fuel moisture to predict fire potential, and it changes every day. So, to measure fuel moisture, fire agencies use what is called a fuel stick. They take a piece of wood and put a sensor inside of it. It tells you, if your fuels are drying out, how quickly?
We’re also interested in grass crop. Southern California can look like Ireland in March, with lush grass. That’s a heat sink for any fire. We have no history of huge fires running through lush green grass. By the time we get to October or November, when we haven’t seen significant rain in eight months, that’s when we’re concerned for the type of catastrophic fire we’ve seen lately.

Q: How has the weather network changed your fire risk response?

A: We used to say when the wind blows 40 mph, sound the alarm. But there are some areas where it blows 40 all the time. So we now use what’s windy for that environment. We set triggers so that when it hits the 99th percentile for that area, we sound the alarm.
From there, we have reclosers, which are switches, similar to a circuit breaker on household electric lines, that shut off power when a fault occurs. We continuously monitor for faults throughout our system. Any time the system sees a fault – maybe a tree branch touched the line – the recloser senses this and shuts the system off immediately to reduce the likelihood of an ignition emanating from electric lines.

In times of elevated fire potential, we do not re-energize the system until a person has inspected the entire line. That’s a huge piece of what keeps the system safe. When fire potential is extreme, we may de-energize lines in the highest-risk areas preventively until the extreme conditions have passed.

Q: How do you communicate that to consumers?

A: Mass communication is a challenge. We have an enterprise notification system, but we don’t have everybody’s updated phone number. What we have is what people give us. So now we’re looking at leveraging social media, traditional media, community partners and other ways to communicate. There’s an aspect of change management to this – educating consumers that we have to operate the system differently than 20 years ago to keep our communities safe. Last November, we had wide-scale winds of 60 to 90 mph. In that environment, all it takes is one outage to spark a fire that can threaten life and property.

As we see wildfires continue to become more deadly and devastating, it’s becoming comparable to what you can see in hurricanes. We’ll migrate toward treating wildfire as the disaster it’s really turning into.

Q: Is burying cables feasible in highest-risk areas?

A: You won’t just trench through a big canyon and over a mountain in the Cleveland National Forest. Underground lines usually go under a street and driveway. And it takes an awful long time to underground thousands of miles of power lines. There are other tools in the toolbox, such as a covered conductor, which is coated so that branches can touch the line without causing sparks to fly, or taller steel poles farther apart with really strong wires, so they won’t fall and hit the ground under almost any circumstance. It’s overall system hardening. It’s not any one thing that’s the answer. It’s a mosaic of mitigations.

Q: Do you see a correlation between climate change and wildfires?

A: The biggest change I’ve observed, working as a scientist for 10 years, is our rainfall patterns. In December 2017, it wasn’t unusual that we were seeing big Santa Ana winds, but what was unusual is that the fuels were dry in December. Usually rain in October and November means we’re in the clear for wildfire by Thanksgiving. Not that time.

As for the Camp Fire, north of the Sierras in the Cascades, rain usually starts in September there. Here we were in the middle of November and you had fuels in a position that they could burn. Rainfall patterns are shifting and we’re seeing more drought and rains delayed. These Santa Ana winds have lots of dry fuel to work with.

Q: Are you changing anything about how you run the network in response to rain changes and recent fires?

A: We’ll never stop evolving. We now can use modems that will allow us to log into stations and report wind gusts in real time. We don’t have to wait for a 10-minute read. Batteries are coming to the point that we’ll be able to retrofit some stations with cameras to enhance our situational awareness. The nature of science itself, we’ll never get it completely figured out. As well as we understand it today, we can always understand it better tomorrow. Utilities are a big piece of a big puzzle.

This Resilience Trailblazer story is an excerpt from our upcoming report, “California fires: Building resilience from the ashes,” which uses Zurich’s award-winning Post-Event Review Capability to learn from disasters. Our Resilience Trailblazer stories highlight individuals who, as a part of an organization or team, are helping to lead the shift from post-disaster relief to pre-event resilience within their areas of influence. Resilience Trailblazer stories are based on our interviews with the person featured. The content is used with permission of the persons featured.

Find more Resilience Trailblazer stories here.


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