Three years ago, on a hot July day, a spark from a moving vehicle ignited a change in the City of Redding and the surrounding areas that would last a lifetime. The fire that began at the Carr Powerhouse in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area would take just four days to breach the city limits of Redding, something authorities and community members alike had never seen before, despite other large fires in the region.
The Carr Fire ultimately burned for more than a month, consuming 229,651 acres, destroying more than 1600 structures, causing the evacuation of 38,000 residents and claiming the lives of eight people, including three firefighters. Jeremy Stoke, a dedicated Redding Fire Inspector, who returned early from his vacation to help the effort, was unable to be located and rescued as he worked on the fire.
Three years later, this small Northern California city in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) has taken large-scale action in the fight against wildfire. Spearheaded by a multi-faceted team, the City of Redding implemented a Wildfire Mitigation Plan that includes cutting-edge technology and an Emergency Operations Command Center (EOC), modeled after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Incident Command System. This EOC serves as a 24-hour support system that monitors everyday concerns like power outages and catastrophic events like the Carr Fire simultaneously.
Three 360° cameras with advanced technology, called IQ FireWatch, scan and assess potential fire danger 24-hours a day. The system can be calibrated for all regions, types of vegetation and weather conditions.
The technology built into the IQ FireWatch system is specifically created and continuously optimized for the early detection of wildfire smoke. If a sensor detects smoke or a smoke-like formation, the information is flagged and transmitted to a monitoring center, where operators evaluate the information and notify the fire department, if necessary. Redding, California is the first to permanently install these cameras in the nation, though they are widely used in Europe.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are utilized to monitor weather or large-scale events in the field. The UAVs also patrol power lines and electric infrastructure to help prevent Redding Electric Utility’s equipment from potentially causing a wildfire. The EOC can display the information obtained by the UAVs in the field, aiding in situational awareness during events.
City-wide radio communications are being improved to ensure first responders and other departments can proactively communicate during emergencies. Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) devices have been installed in Redding Fire Department and Redding Police Department vehicles, which will help identify the specific locations of fire trucks, emergency vehicles and radios. These features – particularly the Automatic Vehicle Location – will play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of first responders and other emergency personnel.
Most importantly for the Redding Community, the information collected at the Emergency Operations Command Center can instantly be streamed to social media channels and media outlets alike, creating quick access for first responders, partnering agencies, the media and the public.
“To be able to provide this state-of-the-art facility that rivals any other in California is another step in creating a more fire-safe future for the City of Redding,” says Redding Electric Utility Director Dan Beans. “We exist to benefit the community. REU started 100 years ago for that purpose and we are striving to continue that benefit for the next 100 years.”
“The EOC is designed to receive real-time data and communications from the field while having direct contact with our county and state partners. It will play a vital role in protecting first responders while they work to keep the community safe,” says Redding Fire Chief, Jerrod Vanlandingham.
As wildfire becomes an increasingly larger issue nationwide, The City of Redding hopes this command center will become a prototype for others of its kind. In 2020, more than 4.2 million acres burned in the State of California – the highest number ever recorded. The 2021 fire season in California has already surpassed last year at this time. In conjunction with particularly dry vegetation, due to a statewide drought, it is even more crucial to put the proper systems into place to keep communities safe.
Craig Wittner, City of Redding Fire Marshal, saw the Carr Fire first-hand and sees the progress being made in our community as a hopeful sign that Redding is becoming a more emergency-prepared community.
Programs like the Wildfire Mitigation Plan’s Vegetation Management and Improved Response Program, he says, help bolster staffing for the Redding Fire Department and the Redding Parks Department. 22 employees were hired specifically for the purpose of fire mitigation under the plan. Additionally, REU’s support has helped to contribute to fuels reduction programs used to manage high-risk areas of the city, like the use of the Goat Strike Force. This fuels reduction program is effective and one of the most popular with citizens.
The Emergency Operations Command Center has come together with immense support from many City departments, including the Redding Fire Department, the Redding Police Department, the Community Services Department’s Building Maintenance Team, the Information Technology Department, the Public Works Engineering Department and Fleet Groups, the City’s Finance, Treasury and Purchasing Departments and REU staff. The effort has been championed and authorized by The Redding City Council, in conjunction with support from the City Manager’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office.
“The devastation brought on by the Carr Fire in our community and other horrific fires across California changed the laws, which provided the City with the opportunity to proactively tackle these issues. It was incredibly important for us to create a system that utilizes advancements in technology to prepare for and mitigate emergencies that impact the city, ” says Redding City Manager Barry Tippin. “This command center will provide crucial, time-sensitive support for everyone involved – from first responders and partner agencies to community members. There is no way to completely avoid wildfires, but we can do our best to prepare for them. This command center is a big part of the larger mission to reduce the risk of wildfire in Redding.”
The Emergency Operations Center is a testament to Redding’s collective desire to safeguard itself and its neighbors against another tragedy like the Carr Fire. It shows the value in using the City’s accumulated knowledge to create a safer future and the power that comes from working together.